What is pre-eclampsia?

Pre-eclampsia is a condition that affects pregnant women and is associated with having high blood pressure. It is a fairly common condition during pregnancy for women, affecting up to six per cent of pregnant women in the UK.

What is the first sign of pre-eclampsia?

Pre-eclampsia usually occurs 20 weeks or later into pregnancy. If you have pre-eclampsia, you will be reviewed regularly in order to monitor your blood pressure and urine and to check your liver and kidney function. You will probably need to have extra ultrasound scans to check on the growth of your baby. Based on all these factors, your doctor may consider medication to manage the pre-eclampsia.

How does pre-eclampsia affect the unborn baby?

Pre-eclampsia can reduce the blood supply to the placenta, restricting the flow of nutrients and oxygen. If the placenta is severely affected, your baby’s growth may be affected, and s/he may become unwell. In very rare cases babies can die in the womb as a result of pre-eclampsia.

This is why we advise patients to attend regular antenatal check-ups during pregnancy to ensure that any problems can be identified early and managed. As well as listening to your baby’s heart rate and carrying out ultrasound scans to ensure your pregnancy is progressing normally, your midwife will check your blood pressure, blood and urine for signs of pre-eclampsia and other potential issues, (such as urinary tract infections, or gestational diabetes).

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I’ve been told I have pre-eclampsia – should I be worried?

Although a pre-eclampsia diagnosis can be scary, it is a manageable condition and the earlier it is identified, the better. Most cases are mild and your pregnancy can continue pretty much as normal, just with a little extra monitoring. Medication is necessary in some cases and for some women we may have to consider an early delivery.

In some developing parts of the world, pre-eclampsia is still a leading cause of maternal and infant death. In the UK this is extremely rare, thanks to high-quality antenatal care.

Is there anything I need to do?

  • Make sure you seek medical advice promptly if you feel unwell – for example if you have a headache or abdominal pain which doesn’t resolve with paracetamol, visual disturbances, or nausea/ vomiting.
  • Take your prescribed medication and get your blood pressure checked regularly
  • Monitor your salt intake and avoid foods which are high in salt

How is pre-eclampsia treated?

Treatment depends on your blood pressure, kidney and liver function and the baby’s growth.  Common treatments include medications to lower blood pressure (antihypertensives).  Depending on the severity of pre-eclampsia, you may need to have your baby earlier than your due date by being induced or by caesarean section, unless labour begins naturally. If there are concerns about you or your baby, your baby may need to be delivered earlier than this.

In very severe cases, medication may be required to prevent seizures (magnesium sulphate).

Pre-eclampsia can only be ‘cured’ with the delivery of your baby, though it can usually be managed with close monitoring and medication. In severe cases of pre-eclampsia, it may be necessary to deliver your baby before 37 weeks. Should this happen, it’s likely that your baby will need extra care in hospital after delivery.

Even after delivering the baby, it can still take a while for you to get better. You may need to stay in hospital for longer after delivery, and you may need to continue taking medication to lower your blood pressure for a few weeks.

For women who have developed pre-eclampsia, is there risk for future pregnancies?

Yes. It’s important for your doctor to know if previous pregnancies were affected by pre-eclampsia, the treatment you required and whether it influenced the timing and type of delivery you had.

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Dr Shree Datta, consultant gynaecologist at MyHealthcare Clinic.

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