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What Is Preeclampsia During Pregnancy, and How Can You Avoid It?

While pregnancy is a beautiful time in a woman’s life, the entire process of being pregnant can cause a lot of changes to and stresses on the mother’s body. One of the more extreme examples expectant mothers need to be aware of is preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia is a serious high blood pressure disorder that happens during pregnancy or soon after childbirth. This potentially life-threatening condition affects about 5% of U.S. pregnancies. But with proper care, most pregnant women with preeclampsia have healthy babies and stay healthy themselves.

This blog post will talk about preeclampsia and what can be done about it. It will also discuss a related life-threatening condition known as HELLP syndrome.

Signs and symptoms of preeclampsia.

What makes preeclampsia so serious is that it can affect all the organs in a woman’s body. It usually develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy, often in the third trimester. When it develops before 34 weeks of pregnancy, it’s called early-onset preeclampsia. It also can develop in the weeks after childbirth.

Your healthcare provider will screen you for the condition at every prenatal visit by taking your blood pressure and, if it's high, testing your urine for protein. You also may have tests to check how your liver and kidneys are working and to measure the number of platelets in your blood.

Symptoms of mild preeclampsia include:

  • High blood pressure (systolic pressure of 160mmHg or higher or diastolic pressure of 110mmHg or higher)
  • Water retention (swollen hands, feet, and/or face)
  • Protein in the urine

Symptoms of severe preeclampsia include:

  • Headaches
  • Blurred vision
  • Inability to tolerate bright light
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Urinating small amounts
  • Pain in the upper right abdomen
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tendency to bruise easily

If you experience any of the severe symptoms listed above, contact your doctor immediately. Note: Not all women with preeclampsia have obvious swelling or dramatic weight gain, and not all women with swelling or rapid weight gain have preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia risk factors.

Experts believe preeclampsia is caused by abnormal blood flow within the placenta. In many women, the roots of their preeclampsia stretch back to the early days of their pregnancy.

If the expectant mother's blood vessels have damage — for example, from long-term diabetes or chronic hypertension — they will "teach" this damage to the growing placenta, increasing the risk of preeclampsia. Other risk factors include:

  • First-time pregnancy
  • Body mass index (BMI) over 30
  • Family history of preeclampsia (mother or sister)
  • Being older than 35

Preventing preeclampsia.

SInce the exact cause of preeclampsia is not known, prevention involves identifying whether you have risk factors for preeclampsia and taking steps to address them. Some things you can do include:

  • Use little or no added salt in your meals
  • Drink 6-8 glasses of water a day
  • Avoid fried foods and junk food
  • Get enough rest
  • Exercise regularly
  • Elevate your feet several times during the day
  • Avoid drinking alcohol
  • Avoid beverages containing caffeine
  • Your doctor may prescribe medicines and additional supplements

What is HELLP syndrome?

HELLP (hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelets) syndrome is a life-threatening pregnancy complication usually considered to be a variant of preeclampsia. Both conditions typically occur during the later stages of pregnancy, or soon after childbirth.

HELLP syndrome was named by Dr. Louis Weinstein in 1982 after its characteristics:

  1. H (hemolysis, which is the breaking down of red blood cells)
  2. EL (elevated liver enzymes)
  3. LP (low platelet count)

HELLP syndrome symptoms are sometimes mistaken for gastritis, flu, acute hepatitis, acute fatty liver disease, gallbladder disease or other conditions. The physical symptoms of HELLP syndrome may seem like preeclampsia at first and include one or more of the following:

  • Epigastric (abdominal) or substernal (chest) pain, including abdominal or chest tenderness and upper right side pain (from liver distention)
  • Nausea, vomiting, or indigestion with pain after eating
  • Headache that won't go away, even after taking medication such as acetaminophen
  • Shoulder pain or pain when breathing deeply
  • Bleeding
  • Changes in vision including blurred vision, seeing double, or flashing lights or auras
  • Swelling, especially of the face or hands
  • Shortness of breath, difficult breathing, or gasping for air

Early diagnosis is critical because serious illness and even death can occur in about 25% of cases. As a result, patient awareness of HELLP syndrome, and how it relates to preeclampsia, is helpful to ensure the best medical care for mother and baby.

Preemptive care is the best care.

If you’re planning for your first baby or preparing for another pregnancy, the maternity care specialists at King’s Daughters’ Health can help. We offer a variety of prenatal classes and programs to help ensure the health of mothers and their babies.

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