May is Preeclampsia Month: Aspirus shares facts on this high-risk pregnancy condition

May is Preeclampsia Awareness Month, and Aspirus would like to share warning signs about the condition with women who are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant.

What is it?

Preeclampsia is a serious medical condition that can occur in the second half of pregnancy. It is dangerous to both the mother (potentially resulting in temporary and in rare cases permanent damage to multiple organs) and child (potentially resulting in preterm delivery).

Dr. David Merrill, a Maternal and Fetal Medicine Specialist at Aspirus OB/Gyn Associates, specializes in high-risk pregnancies and says preeclampsia occurs in 3-4 percent of all pregnancies in the U.S.

“Despite years of extensive research, we still do not understand what causes preeclampsia and there are no tests that can reliably predict who will get it and the only cure is delivery of the baby,” says Merrill.

How is it diagnosed?

Preeclampsia is usually discovered through regular prenatal checkups. Elevated blood pressure and/or protein in the urine are the hallmarks of the diagnosis. Once diagnosed, preeclampsia can stay mild for several weeks but can also become severe very quickly necessitating delivery of the baby.

Symptoms of severe preeclampsia include persistent severe headache, visual problems, new onset shortness of breath or pain in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen. Severe preeclampsia can also be diagnosed by very high blood pressure and various lab tests that indicate organ injury. Occasionally, preeclampsia is diagnosed shortly after delivery in an otherwise uncomplicated pregnancy.

How is it treated?

Hospitalization and careful monitoring of the mother and baby are sometimes needed. If the disease is very mild the mother can sometimes be followed closely as an outpatient. There are no proven therapies to reverse or to prevent preeclampsia from becoming severe. The only known cure is delivery of the baby. If preeclampsia is diagnosed at term, delivery is undertaken even if the disease is mild. If it is diagnosed earlier in gestation and stays mild, the pregnancy can be watched very closely to allow time for the baby to mature. 

What are the risk factors?

The cause of preeclampsia is unknown, though some women are more likely than others to develop it. Your risk of having preeclampsia is higher if you:

  • Are pregnant for the first time
  • Had chronic high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease before pregnancy
  • Are older than 40 or younger than 18 years
  • Are pregnant with twins, triplets, or other multiples
  • Are obese
  • Are African American
  • Have an immune system disorder, such as lupus
  • Have had preeclampsia before

Can preeclampsia be prevented?

There is no way to completely prevent getting preeclampsia. There is evidence that low dose aspirin may reduce the likelihood of getting preeclampsia and is given to women that have risk factors that place them at moderate to high risk of developing it. The low dose aspirin is started late in the first trimester.

The best way to keep you and your baby healthy throughout pregnancy is to go to all your scheduled prenatal visits so your doctor can check your blood pressure and screen for any other signs and symptoms of preeclampsia.