Preeclampsia: What You Need to Know

In a recent Vogue interview, Beyoncé opened up about complications while pregnant and giving birth to her twins – Rumi and Sir. She suffered from toxemia, or preeclampsia, a pregnancy-related high blood pressure disorder. This serious condition was also a fairly recent plot point in two popular television series’ – Downton Abbey (2013) and Blackish (2017). It’s often mispronounced [pree-i-klamp-see-uh] and, based on a recent report from ProPublica, is often misunderstood and mis-described on top health sites. It is always great to stay educated (but remain calm) whether you are planning on getting pregnant, are already pregnant or are close to someone who is. With the right facts in front of you, you will be aware of all risks, signs to look for, treatment options and what to expect.

According to the Preeclampsia Foundation, “preeclampsia and other hypertensive disorders of pregnancy occur in 5-8% of all pregnancies of women who have no known risk factors.” The cause is unknown, but there are a few high-risk factors, according to the American College of Gynecology and Obstetrics (ACOG). These include:

  • First-time pregnancy
  • Previous history of preeclampsia
  • History of chronic hypertension and/or kidney disease
  • Carry multiples
  • Obesity
  • Being over 40
  • Having a medical condition such as diabetes mellitus, thrombophilia, or lupus
  • In vitro fertilization

Speak with your doctor about potential risks and what you can do (if possible) to minimize them. Such conversations about planning and prenatal care are valuable and important.

Preeclampsia can cause your blood pressure to rise during pregnancy and can impact liver and kidney function. It also affects the blood flow to the placenta. Often, preeclampsia results in preterm birth, which can increase the risk of complications for the baby, both short and long-term. Preeclampsia can lead to eclampsia – a condition that is rare in the developed world – which causes seizures during pregnancy or postpartum. For moms who have had preeclampsia, it may also put them at risk for cardiovascular and kidney disease later on in life, according to ACOG.

Preeclampsia can occur any time during a pregnancy, delivery and postpartum (usually up to six weeks). However, the Preeclampsia Foundation says it occurs most frequently in the final trimester and resolves within 48 hours of delivery. Blood pressure should be measured throughout a woman’s pregnancy to help screen for signs of preeclampsia, usually during prenatal care visits, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). A few signs and symptoms of preeclampsia include:

  • Changes in eyesight or seeing spots
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Nausea and vomiting in the second half of pregnancy
  • Persistent headaches
  • Shoulder or upper abdomen pain
  • Sudden weight gain

If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, we recommend you contact your doctor as soon as possible. Treatment of preeclampsia depends on how severe the symptoms are and how far along in the pregnancy. Your doctor may prescribe bed rest, as was the case with Beyoncé. A woman’s condition will be closely monitored either in a hospital or outpatient with frequent visits with your doctor, taking daily kick counts of your baby and checking your blood pressure. If preeclampsia is more severe, a woman will be treated and monitored in a hospital. Your doctor and team of health care professionals may recommend you deliver your baby early, depending on your condition and the health and development of the baby.

Delivering your baby is the best way to treat preeclampsia. While it is more likely that you will develop it again in future pregnancies, it resolves itself in a week or so after delivery, in most cases. Our best advice is to be aware of potential risks before getting pregnant, discuss these risks with a trusted health care professional, and stay alert and aware of yours and your baby’s conditions throughout your pregnancy and shortly after.

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