Everything you need to know about pre-eclampsia

Pre-eclampsia is a disorder that occurs during pregnancy which can affect both mothers and their unborn babies. Here APEC (Action on Pre-Eclampsia) explain what the disorder actually is, how you know if you have it, and what you should do if you're worried

Pre-eclampsia is an illness which occurs only in pregnancy and can affect both a mother and her unborn baby. It is the most common of the serious complications of pregnancy, and although many cases are mild, there is a severe form which can be dangerous. Among the most serious complications are convulsions known as "eclampsia" - hence the term pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome ( the medical term for one of the most serious complications of pre-eclampsia, in which there is a combined liver and blood clotting disorder).

Who gets it?

  • About one pregnant woman in every ten
  • First-time mothers. 
  • Mums over 40 
  • Teenage mothers 
  • Those with a family history of pre-eclampsia 
  • Those suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease 
  • Women carrying more than one baby 
  • Those who have had it before. 
  • Those with a BMI of over 35 
  • Women with auto–immune disorders like Lupus or APLS are at increased risk.

What causes it?

A problem in the placenta which restricts the flow of blood to the baby. This problem develops in early pregnancy but doesn’t cause illness until much later, and usually in the last few weeks.

What are the signs?

  • High blood pressure
  • Protein in the urine 
  • In some cases, severe swelling (oedema) in the mother 
  • Poor growth in the baby 
  • Headaches that will not go away. 
  • Pain just under the ribs & more to the right, like heartburn but cannot be relieved by antacid. 
  • Visual disturbances. 
  • Vomiting (not like the morning sickness in early pregnancy) 
  • Sudden weight gain.

If women experience any of these symptoms they should be seen by their midwife or GP straight away, particularly if they are identified as high risk (even if that’s the woman’s own assessment of risk).

How is it treated?

Women with pre-eclampsia are monitored carefully – sometimes in hospital or a day ward - and may be given drugs to control blood pressure.

Can it be cured?

Only by delivery of the baby, and with it the placenta that is causing the problem. This is why most women with pre-eclampsia have an induced, often early, delivery.

Does it happen again?

Some women get it again - usually in a milder form.

Can it be predicted in early pregnancy?

Not at present - which is why regular attendance at antenatal clinics is so important.

Can it be prevented?

Not reliably - although small doses of aspirin taken daily under medical supervision are thought by some doctors to help.

So what can former sufferers do to help themselves?

  • Seek expert advice 
  • Insist on frequent antenatal checks 
  • Never miss an appointment 
  • Report any unusual signs and symptoms to your midwife or doctor. 
  • Always take a sample of urine to every appointment.

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Find out more

Action on Pre Eclampsia (APEC) aim to educate, inform and advise the public and health professionals about the prevalence, nature and risks of pre-eclampsia.

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