Pre-eclampsia

What is it and what are the warning signs?

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Potentially fatal for mother and baby, pre-eclampsia can be easily detected and treated, provided you know what to look out for.

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Also known as toxaemia of pregnancy, this is a serious condition that can arise after the 28th week of pregnancy.

It is diagnosed when high blood pressure, fluid retention (oedema) and protein in the urine, are all detected in a mother-to-be. Pre-eclampsia occurs in 5-10% of pregnancies.

It is more common during first pregnancies and in women aged either under 20 or over 35.

Women with obesity, kidney disease, diabetes, and pre-existing high blood pressure also have an increased risk of developing pre-eclampsia.

Many sufferers have no symptoms other than swollen ankles, but others may complain of more generalised swelling, headaches, blurred vision, abdominal pain or nausea and vomiting.

How is it diagnosed?

Regular antenatal care is vitally important in the early detection of pre-eclampsia, so make sure you attend all your antenatal appointments.

A urine sample should be dipped for protein every two weeks after the 28th week of pregnancy, and weekly from 36 weeks onwards.

Blood pressure should also be measured at each antenatal attendance. You can also measure your blood pressure at home by using a wrist blood pressure monitor.

How is it treated?

Mild cases can be treated with bed rest and sometimes medication that lowers the blood pressure. Some women may be admitted to hospital for rest and monitoring.

Your condition will be carefully monitored with frequent and regular urine testing and blood pressure checks. 

Even if you don’t feel physically unwell, symptoms should not be ignored. If pre-eclampsia is not effectively treated, it can progress to eclampsia, which is a more serious and potentially fatal condition.

Women with eclampsia have convulsions, which can lead to coma and death. Other complications include brain haemorrhage, kidney failure, and liver failure. The baby is also at great risk of dying if eclampsia develops.

The only cure for pre-eclampsia is delivery of the baby. For this reason, women with severe pre-eclampsia may need to induced or have an early Caesarean section.

If eclampsia develops, immediate induction or Caesarean is necessary to reduce the risk of death for both mother and baby.

Doctors will manage your condition and allow a pregnancy to progress as far as possible before symptoms indicate that early delivery is necessary.

Will I get it again?

Having pre-eclampsia with one child does not mean you will necessarily suffer again with subsequent pregnancies. Research indicates that you more likely to get it if you are aged over 35, but you are less likely to suffer it twice if you have another baby with the same partner.

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If your pre-eclampsia was related to an existing condition such as diabetes, high bood pressure or kidney disease, however, you remain at increased risk with subsequent pregnancies.  


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