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Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to another organ system, most often the liver and kidneys. Preeclampsia usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy in women whose blood pressure had been normal.
Left untreated, preeclampsia can lead to serious — even fatal — complications for both you and your baby. If you have preeclampsia, the most effective treatment is delivery of your baby. Even after delivering the baby, it can still take a while for you to get better.
If you're diagnosed with preeclampsia too early in your pregnancy to deliver your baby, you and your health care provider face a challenging task. Your baby needs more time to mature, but you need to avoid putting yourself or your baby at risk of serious complications.
Rarely, preeclampsia develops after delivery of a baby, a condition known as postpartum preeclampsia.
Preeclampsia sometimes develops without any symptoms. High blood pressure may develop slowly, or it may have a sudden onset. Monitoring your blood pressure is an important part of prenatal care because the first sign of preeclampsia is commonly a rise in blood pressure. Blood pressure that exceeds 140/90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or greater — documented on two occasions, at least four hours apart — is abnormal.
Other signs and symptoms of preeclampsia may include:
Sudden weight gain and swelling (edema) — particularly in your face and hands — may occur with preeclampsia. But these also occur in many normal pregnancies, so they're not considered reliable signs of preeclampsia.
Make sure you attend your prenatal visits so that your care provider can monitor your blood pressure. Contact your health care provider immediately or go to an emergency room if you have severe headaches, blurred vision or other visual disturbance, severe pain in your abdomen, or severe shortness of breath.
Because headaches, nausea, and aches and pains are common pregnancy complaints, it's difficult to know when new symptoms are simply part of being pregnant and when they may indicate a serious problem — especially if it's your first pregnancy. If you're concerned about your symptoms, contact your health care provider.
The exact cause of preeclampsia involves several factors. Experts believe it begins in the placenta — the organ that nourishes the fetus throughout pregnancy. Early in pregnancy, new blood vessels develop and evolve to efficiently send blood to the placenta.
In women with preeclampsia, these blood vessels don't seem to develop or function properly. They're narrower than normal blood vessels and react differently to hormonal signaling, which limits the amount of blood that can flow through them.
Causes of this abnormal development may include:
Preeclampsia develops only as a complication of pregnancy. Risk factors include:
The more severe your preeclampsia and the earlier it occurs in your pregnancy, the greater the risks for you and your baby. Preeclampsia may require induced labor and delivery.
Delivery by cesarean delivery (C-section) may be necessary if there are clinical or obstetric conditions that require a speedy delivery. Otherwise, your health care provider may recommend a scheduled vaginal delivery. Your obstetric provider will talk with you about what type of delivery is right for your condition.
Complications of preeclampsia may include:
Researchers continue to study ways to prevent preeclampsia, but so far, no clear strategies have emerged. Eating less salt, changing your activities, restricting calories, or consuming garlic or fish oil doesn't reduce your risk. Increasing your intake of vitamins C and E hasn't been shown to have a benefit.
Some studies have reported an association between vitamin D deficiency and an increased risk of preeclampsia. But while some studies have shown an association between taking vitamin D supplements and a lower risk of preeclampsia, others have failed to make the connection.
In certain cases, however, you may be able to reduce your risk of preeclampsia with:
It's important that you don't take any medications, vitamins or supplements without first talking to your health care provider.
Before you become pregnant, especially if you've had preeclampsia before, it's a good idea to be as healthy as you can be. Lose weight if you need to, and make sure other conditions, such as diabetes, are well-managed.
Once you're pregnant, take care of yourself — and your baby — through early and regular prenatal care. If preeclampsia is detected early, you and your doctor can work together to prevent complications and make the best choices for you and your baby.
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