Screening expectant moms for potentially dangerous preeclampsia is important. This type of high blood pressure can develop during pregnancy or after childbirth.
There are many reasons why an expectant mom should keep all her prenatal medical appointments. Her doctor will check to make sure she and her unborn baby are doing well and screen the woman for any problems that might develop. One potentially serious complication, which puts both mother and baby at risk, is preeclampsia, a type of high blood pressure.
High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is a common health problem. In fact, almost half of adults in the U.S. have hypertension, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s a condition that affects men and women.
While pregnant, women can have hypertension for a number of reasons. Some already have high blood pressure before their pregnancy. Others may only develop high blood pressure while they are expecting, with their blood pressure often returning to normal after they give birth, a condition known as gestational hypertension.
However, although preeclampsia is also a pregnancy-associated hypertension condition, it is a particularly dangerous form of high blood pressure for both anexpectant mom and her unborn baby.
If you wonder what distinguishes preeclampsia from other forms of hypertension, there are several factors: It typically arises after the 20th week of pregnancy or after giving birth (postpartum preeclampsia). And it is a serious blood pressure disorder that can affect and even damage other organs in a pregnant woman’s body, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
Preeclampsia occurs in about 3.4 percent of U.S. pregnancies, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes. Although the exact cause of the condition isn’t known, researchers have identified risk factors.
Having a sister or mother who experienced preeclampsia, being African American, and being older than 35 when you are pregnant place you at moderate risk. Obesity and in vitro fertilization can also raise your odds of developing preeclampsia.
Factors that place you at highest risk for preeclampsia include having the condition during a past pregnancy, being pregnant with twins or more babies, and having chronic high blood pressure, kidney disease, diabetes, or an autoimmune condition such as lupus.
A pregnant woman is diagnosed with preeclampsia when she has hypertension and signs her body’s normal regulatory systems are showing signs of damage. One of these signs is an abnormal amount of protein in the urine (proteinuria). Sudden weight gain and swelling in the face and hands often occurs, too.
If preeclampsia is worsening, other signs doctors call “severe features” can appear. For example, blood tests may reveal a low number of platelets — blood cells your body needs to produce clots to stop bleeding. What’s more, if hypertension causes blood vessel damage, abnormal liver and kidney function can occur as well as changes in vision, fluid in the lungs, and difficulty breathing. Pain over the upper abdomen, severe headaches, and extremely high blood pressure readings are also noted as “severe features,” ACOG explains.
Preeclampsia needs medical care
There are many reasons to report any potential symptoms of preeclampsia to your doctor immediately. Blood pressure readings, lab tests, a review of your symptoms, and a physical exam are used to make the diagnosis.
If you have preeclampsia, it’s crucial to follow all medical instructions and to understand the condition can impact not only your health but also your baby’s.
The high blood pressure experienced with preeclampsia reduces the blood supply to the unborn baby, which may restrict oxygen and nutrients. Because of this, ACOG explains, some babies may need to be delivered before they are full term, and infants born very early are at risk of long-term health complications and even death.
Moms-to-be who have uncontrolled preeclampsia may progress to a more severe condition called eclampsia, which can cause seizures and coma. HELLP syndrome (which stands for hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, and low platelet count) is another potential complication. Marked by damaged red blood cells, blood clotting impairment, and potential internal bleeding, HELLP syndrome is a life-threatening medical emergency.
Bottom line: What is preeclampsia treatment?
There is good news about this sometimes-frightening condition. Screening for preeclampsia and quick medical care if you develop it can go far to keep you and your baby as safe as possible.
Treatment for mild preeclampsia without severe features may take place either in the hospital or at home, if you are closely monitored by your obstetrician-gynecologist or other medical professional, ACOG explains. If your condition is managed at home, you’ll need to take your own blood pressure regularly and see your doctor or other healthcare professional once or twice a week. You’ll also need to keep track of your baby’s movements by doing a daily “kick count.”
Once you’ve reached the 37th week of your pregnancy, depending on your overall situation, your doctor may recommend your baby be delivered early. If test results show that the baby is in potential jeopardy, an earlier delivery may be necessary.
If you develop preeclampsia with severe features, you will almost always be treated in the hospital, where you and your baby will be monitored around the clock. You may receive corticosteroid drugs to help your unborn baby’s lungs mature, and you will likely be placed on medications to help reduce your blood pressure and to help prevent seizures.
If your condition is stable and your pregnancy is less than 34 weeks along, it may be possible to wait to deliver your baby to avoid a very preterm birth. However, if your condition or that of your baby’s worsens, an immediate delivery will be necessary, according to the CDC.
April 21, 2021
Janet O’Dell, RN