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Recognizing Symptoms of Preeclampsia

written by: Emma Lloyd • edited by: Emma Lloyd • updated: 6/27/2010

Pregnant women at twenty or more weeks’ gestation are at risk of preeclampsia, a condition characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine.

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    What is Preeclampsia?

    Preeclampsia is the name given to a disorder which can affect women who are twenty or more weeks pregnant. The clinical definition of the disorder includes hypertension and protein in the urine, but other symptoms may be present. As such, diagnosis is made on the basis of a series of blood pressure readings in conjunction with urinalysis to determine the level of protein present in the urine.

    In the United States, around 5% of pregnant women will experience preeclampsia. Globally, the incidence of the disorder is between 5% and 14%. Preeclampsia is the third most common cause of death for pregnant women, behind hemorrhage and embolism.

    Women under 20 or over 35 have an increased risk of preeclampsia. In addition, women who are experiencing their first pregnancy are more likely to develop preeclampsia than women on their second or subsequent pregnancy.

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    Causes and Symptoms

    The exact cause of preeclampsia is unknown, but there are several theories, including blood vessel damage, decreased blood flow to the uterus, and an immune disorder. One prevalent theory is that placental proteins trigger circulation problems in some pregnant women. Some studies have noted an increased risk for preeclampsia if a woman is having multiple babies, or if her pregnancy was the result of donor insemination. Urinary tract infection, obesity, diabetes, renal disease, and periodontal disease may also increase the risks.

    In addition to high blood pressure and protein in the urine, women with preeclampsia may have a range of other symptoms. Headaches and visual disturbances, fluid retention, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and decreased urine output may also be experienced as symptoms of preeclampsia.

    Women with preeclampsia are also at risk of developing eclampsia, in which seizures, coma, or other neurological symptoms may accompany those outlined above.

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    Treatment for Preeclampsia

    One of the greatest problems in treating a woman with symptoms of preeclampsia is that very often, the baby she is carrying is not yet old enough to survive after birth. In these cases, medication and other treatments are used to help her continue the pregnancy safely.

    Another problem is the difficulty of identifying women who may be at increased risk of developing preeclampsia. In 2009, researchers in Auckland, New Zealand produced findings that may help solve this problem, by identifying a set of proteins that are commonly found in the blood of women who develop preeclampsia.

    The main goal in treating women with symptoms of preeclampsia is to enable such women to continue their pregnancies safely. This may include using medication to reduce high blood pressure, monitoring to prevent seizures, and monitoring fluid retention and output. A woman who develops preeclampsia will typically have her labor induced once she reaches 37 weeks’ gestation.