It's uncommon that a pregnancy complication gets as much attention as preeclampsia has lately, but thanks to Downton Abbey and Lady Sybil, it's getting the attention it deserves.

Preeclampsia is a hypertensive disorder that only occurs during pregnancy and up to six weeks after delivery. It affects at least 5 to 8 percent of all pregnancies typically after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but in rare cases, it occurs earlier.

While some women only develop mild symptoms, others can become very ill and, without appropriate medical treatment, can die. Most women who develop preeclampsia however, will deliver a healthy baby and fully recover.

According to The Preeclampsia Foundation, preeclampsia can:

  • Cause your blood pressure to rise and put you at risk of brain injury
  • Affect blood flow to the placenta, often leading to smaller or prematurely born babies
  • Impair kidney and liver function
  • Cause blood clotting problems
  • Cause pulmonary edema (fluid on the lungs)
  • Cause seizures
  • Cause maternal and infant death (if left untreated)

Symptoms of Preeclampsia

Hypertension (high blood pressure) is the most common complication diagnosed during pregnancy (affecting about 20 percent of all pregnancies), but it doesn't usually lead to preeclampsia. High blood pressure is, however, among the hallmark signs of preeclampsia. Other symptoms of preeclampsia include:

  • Protein in the urine
  • Headaches
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Swelling in the hands, face, and feet
  • Visual changes
  • Sometimes pain in the upper abdomen

If a woman with severe preeclampsia develops seizures, her condition is then called eclampsia.

Causes of Preeclampsia

Experts don't know exactly what causes preeclampsia, but risk factors include:

  • Being African American
  • Being very young
  • A first pregnancy
  • Being overweight or obese
  • A history of preeclampsia with a previous pregnancy
  • A history of hypertensive or cardiac disorders, lupus, or other autoimmune disorders
  • Being 40 or older

There are no known ways to prevent preeclampsia, but healthcare providers advise women to be careful about weight gain and make sure their blood pressure is normal or well controlled with medication.

Treating Preeclampsia

Women who receive regular prenatal care have their blood pressure and urine tested at every appointment. If they develop problems, their healthcare provider will order additional lab tests. If those tests indicate the woman is developing preeclampsia, she may be hospitalized, placed on bed rest, and treated with medications to lower her blood pressure. She may also receive a mineral called magnesium sulfate through an IV to prevent seizures.

The only cure for preeclampsia is delivery of the baby. If her baby is premature and her condition is stable, she may stay in the hospital for days to weeks until her baby is ready to be born. If she is very ill, however, or she and/or her baby are having complications, she might have her labor induced or a cesarean section even if the baby is premature.

Most women in the United States and other developed countries receive prenatal care and if they develop preeclampsia, it is well managed and they fully recover. In countries where quality healthcare is less accessible, preeclampsia is among the leading causes of maternal death.

Heather Weldon MD, OB/GYN, reviewed this article.




The Preeclampsia Foundation