Pre-eclampsia is a pregnancy complication that causes high blood pressure, which can be deadly for both a woman and her unborn baby if untreated.
It usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy in women whose blood pressure is typically normal.
The most effective treatment is an early delivery; usually via C-section.
However, this may not be best for the baby if it is early on in the pregnancy.
Pre-eclampsia affects about 25,000 women in England and Wales each year, and four per cent of pregnancies in the US.
It can have no symptoms if it develops gradually rather than coming on suddenly.
A blood pressure reading above 140/90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) on two occasions is usually the first sign.
Other symptoms may include:
- Severe headaches
- Blurred vision, temporary loss of sight or light sensitivity
- Upper abdominal pain, particularly under the ribs on the right side
- Nausea or vomiting
- Reduced urination
- Shortness of breath due to a build up of fluid in the lungs
Sudden weight gain, and swelling in the face and hands, are also symptoms, however, these can occur during normal pregnancies.
Pre-eclampsia is thought to begin in the placenta when its blood vessels narrow and do not react to hormones properly.
This reduces the amount of blood that flows through them.
Its underlying cause may be genetic, due to a problem with a woman’s immune system or existing blood vessel damage.
A woman is more at risk if she, or a member of her family, suffered from pre-eclampsia before.
The risk is also highest during the first pregnancy, and if a woman is over 40; obese; black; having a multiple birth, like twins; or conceived via IVF.
Existing medical conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, migraines and kidney disease also raise the risk.
If untreated, pre-eclampsia can restrict a baby’s growth or cause it to be delivered early.
The placenta can also separate from the uterus wall, which can lead to severe bleeding.
A woman may also suffer seizures, organ damage and even heart disease as a result of untreated pre-eclampsia.
Although treatment is usually inducing labour, if it is too early to deliver the baby, medications may be prescribed to lower a woman’s blood pressure.
There is no clear advice on how to prevent pre-eclampsia, however, research suggests taking a low-dose of aspirin and calcium supplements may help.
Pregnant women should talk to their doctor before taking any drugs or supplements.
Source: Mayo Clinic