Pre-eclampsia in pregnancy

Pre-eclampsia is a condition that occurs when the placenta stops functioning properly and the blood supply between mother and baby is disrupted. Symptoms include severe swelling in hands, face and ankles.

What is pre-eclampsia?

Pre-eclampsia is a condition that can occur in pregnancy when the placenta stops working effectively. The placenta is the vital organ linking mum’s blood supply to baby’s. If pre-eclampsia occurs, mum can develop high blood pressure, protein in her urine (proteinuria) and fluid retention (odema).

For the unborn child, pre-eclampsia can cause growth problems (intrauterine growth retardation).

In severe cases, pre-eclampsia can cause stroke, seizures, organ failure and death in mother and baby. Around six mothers die in the UK every year from the condition. Several hundred babies also die each year following complications from the severe cases – most are born prematurely.

Who is at risk?

Around 10% of first pregnancies are affected by mild pre-eclampsia whilst severe pre-eclampsia can affect 1-2% of pregnancies.

If you suffered from the condition during your first pregnancy, you are more likely to suffer from it in other births. Family history of the condition can increase your chance of having it but the cause of pre-eclampsia is not fully understood.

What are the symptoms?

Pre-eclampsia can only occur after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with most mothers suffering in their third trimester(from week 27 onwards).

Initial symptoms can include high blood pressure and protein in your urine though you are unlikely to notice these yourself. Your midwife or doctor should check regularly for these symptoms at scheduled antenatal appointments.

Symptoms to look out for can include:

  • fluid retention – ankles, feet, hands and face
  • vision disturbance – flashing lights or blurry vision
  • severe headaches
  • pain in your upper abdomen (just below ribs)
  • vomiting
  • excessive weight gain due to fluid retention
  • Generally feeling unwell

If you suffer from any of these symptoms and are past your 20 week mark, you should seek medical advice immediately. If the condition is left untreated, complications can develop for mum and baby.

What are the treatments?

The only prevention of pre-eclampsia is to deliver the baby and remove the placenta as soon as possible. Closer monitoring of mum and baby and trying to lower mum’s blood pressure are maintained until delivery is possible.

After you have been diagnosed, you will be sent for further testing. The waiting time could be less than a day, or closer to a week, depending on the severity of your symptoms.

If you have mild pre-eclampsia and are between 24 and 32 weeks pregnant, you will be asked to attend antenatal appointments every three weeks where your condition will be monitored. If you are past 32 weeks, you will attend antenatal appointments every two weeks.

Severe pre-eclampsia will mean you are admitted to hospital for very close monitoring and it is unlikely you will leave until your baby has been born.

How can I reduce my risk?

There are currently no standard recommendations as to how to reduce the risk of developing pre-eclampsia other than to make sure you attend all antenatal appointments. By missing appointments, your midwife may miss the initial symptoms of the condition.

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Source: NHS Choices
Photography: John Fowler @Flickr

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