Preeclampsia Signs and Risk Factors: What You Need to Know
Screening for preeclampsia signs is crucial for your health during pregnancy. Doctors routinely monitor for this disorder during your prenatal care visits because it can have serious complications for you and your baby, and at its worst, it can be fatal. In fact, the World Health Organization puts preeclampsia in the top three leading causes for maternal mortality (in addition to severe bleeding and infection).
BUT, preeclampsia signs can easily be missed. Symptoms can be silent or simply confused for body changes typical of pregnancy. It also varies highly from woman to woman, both in terms of when in pregnancy the condition develops, and the pace at which symptoms begin to manifest. So, knowing preeclampsia signs is crucial for early detection.
This post will cover:
- What is preeclampsia?
- What are the signs of preeclampsia?
- Who is at risk for preeclampsia?
What is preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia is a hypertensive (or high blood pressure) disorder. While it most commonly develops during the third trimester, it can happen any time during pregnancy, delivery, or after delivery (up to six weeks postpartum).
If left untreated, the condition can eventually lead to seizures, or eclampsia, so identifying preeclampsia signs is important.
While scientists are still working on figuring out exactly why this disorder happens, it seems to be most likely associated with abnormal blood flow to the placenta. (And check out our post on new developments in how preeclampsia is detected and treated.)
What are preeclampsia signs?
There are two main symptoms that your doctor will routinely check for at your prenatal visits:
- High blood pressure (over 140/90 mm Hg)
- High levels of protein in the urine (indicates kidney problems)
Other symptoms include headaches that are not resolved with over-the-counter pain medication, vision changes (blurred vision, loss of vision, or light sensitivity), upper abdominal pain (especially under the ribs on the right side), nausea, vomiting, decreased urination, shortness of breath, and sudden weight gain (more than two pounds a week).
What are the silent preeclampsia signs?
One important sign to be aware of is swelling or edema. This one is tricky: some swelling during pregnancy is normal. But if you experience swelling specifically in the face or around the eyes, in the hands, or sudden swelling in the feet or ankles, let your healthcare provider know right away, as these signs can indicate pre-eclampsia.
Who is at risk for preeclampsia?
Pre-eclampsia occurs in about 5% of pregnancies. These are some of the major risk factors for developing pre-eclampsia signs:
- Age: The risk is higher among young women (under 20 years old) and older women (over 40 years old).
- Obesity: The risk is higher if you are overweight. Be sure to eat a healthy diet and add moderately-intense pregnancy workouts to your daily routine.
- Gestational diabetes: This condition is strongly associated with pre-eclampsia. Although it’s not clear whether gestational diabetes causes pre-eclampsia, the association means that gestational diabetes is an important red flag for you and your doctor to be mindful of.
- In vitro fertilization: This fertility treatment is associated with increased risk for pre-eclampsia, particularly in women with PCOS or women who conceived using a donor egg.
- Previous history of pre-eclampsia: If you have already experienced this complication before, there is an increased chance of experiencing it with future pregnancies.
- Multiple gestation: Being pregnant with more than one baby increases the risk of pre-eclampsia.
- Family history of pre-eclampsia
- History of chronic high blood pressure
For more information, check our post on what the latest research says about how preeclampsia is detected and treated.