WHAT IS PRE-ECLAMPSIA AT PREGNANCY?
Pre-eclampsia also known as toxaemia, is a disorder which typically occurs
after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Signs of pre-eclampsia are usually high blood pressure
combined with the presence of protein in the urine. However, in the absence
of protein in the urine, other symptoms may be present alongside high blood
pressure. These include headaches, blurred or altered vision, upper abdominal
pain, oedema (swelling of the face, wrists or ankles) or abnormal blood test
results. If left untreated pre-eclampsia can escalate to the more dangerous
condition, eclampsia. This results in fitting and in severe cases, death, in
the mother and sometimes the baby.
What causes pre-eclampsia?
Although pre-eclampsia has been recognised as a disorder for around 150 years,
its exact cause remains unknown. We know that 10-15% of women pregnant for the
first time will develop pre-eclampsia. We also know that women are more likely
to get pre-eclampsia if they have a close family relative with a history of
pre-eclampsia. Also, women who have had one pregnancy marked by the disorder
then have an increased chance (10-25%) of developing it in a subsequent pregnancy.
However, women with a previous normal pregnancy or pregnancies (no pre-eclampsia)
have less chance of developing it in subsequent pregnancies.
How Dangerous Pre-eclampsia?
Pre-eclampsia can be dangerous. High blood pressure can kill, and preeclampsia
can reduce the amount of blood passing through the placenta thus reducing the
air and food that reaches your baby, resulting in low birth weight and other
What is the Symptoms of Pre-eclampsia?
- High Blood Pressure: Usually defined as a reading higher
than 140/90. However, if you normally have low blood pressure, a rise to less
than 140/90 could indicate you are at risk. You can buy blood pressure gauges
from your chemist if you want to establish your baseline as soon as you know
you are pregnant.
- Swelling: A certain amount of swelling is normal during
pregnancy and you may find it difficult to wear a ring for the full term.
Swelling, or edema, that could provoke concern is caused by excess fluid and
usually appears in the face, legs and hands. Try pressing your thumb into
the swelling, if the indentation remains for a few seconds after you remove
your thumb, tell the nurse at your next prenatal visit.
- Protein In Your Urine: This is not a symptom you will be
able to spot or monitor. You will be tested at each prenatal check-up.
- Sudden Weight Gain: An increase in your weight of more
than 2 pounds (0.9kg) in a week or 6 pounds (2.75kg) in a month will ring
alarm bells. If your weight is increasing at that sort of rate, don't diet
or try to lose the weight. Tell the experts at your prenatal, it is important
that they know and let the nurse or doctor judge whether you are likely to
- Headaches: If you suffer from migraine-like headaches which
are not relieved by over-the-counter pain killers (do not take aspirin), contact
your doctor immediately.
- Vomiting: The nausea that all mothers experience occurs
early in pregnancy and goes away. If you experience sudden vomiting in the
second half of your pregnancy, contact your doctor. Of course this could just
be a bug, but your doctor will check your blood pressure and urine to see
if you have other symptoms of preeclampsia.
What are the implications?
If a woman shows symptoms of pre-eclampsia at any stage during her pregnancy,
she will be monitored carefully. Sometimes, a woman will have to be admitted
to hospital so that her symptoms, especially blood pressure, can be managed
closely. The presence of pre-eclampsia may mean labour needs to be induced early
to stop it escalating to eclampsia. At least 15% of all pre-term births are
a result of this. Babies born to mothers with pre-eclampsia may also be small
for gestational age because their growth may have been affected by the disorder.
It is estimated that around 1,000 babies in the UK die each year from the effects
of pre-eclampsia. In the most serious cases of pre-eclampsia, where the disease
does escalate to the condition eclampsia, a woman might suffer fits, liver and
kidney failure, difficulty breathing, and/or problems with blood clotting. Seven
women in the UK die each year from the effects of pre-eclampsia, and worldwide
it is responsible for the death of over 200,000 women each year.
What can be done to treat pre-eclampsia?
Doctors can give drugs to alleviate some of the symptoms, but the only cure
for pre-eclampsia is to deliver the baby and the placenta. It is therefore the
cause of around 15% of premature births.
Higher risk factors
The risk of developing pre-eclampsia is higher in women carrying multiple pregnancies
(twins or triplets). And while women with previous normal pregnancies have less
chance of developing pre-eclampsia in subsequent pregnancies, mothers who start
another family with a new partner, have the same risk as women pregnant for
the first time. It is also accepted that women over 35 are at a higher risk.