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Most women will experience a normal pregnancy. For some, however, complications can arise which have an impact on the well being of both mother and baby. Pre-eclampsia is one such condition. Although rare, it can make you very ill and needs to be closely monitored.
What is pre-eclampsia?
Pre-eclampsia is a condition that some women experience during pregnancy which occurs when the placenta does not function properly. It cannot happen before you are 20 weeks pregnant. In most cases it occurs when you are in the third trimester (after week 27) and it may also happen straight after the birth of your baby.
What are the symptoms of pre-eclampsia?
Women who have pre-eclampsia initially develop high blood pressure (known as hypertension), have protein in their urine (proteinurea) and suffer from fluid retention (oedema). There are a number of other symptoms that may be experienced as the condition progresses including visual disturbances, severe headaches, abdominal pains, excessive weight gain, severe swelling of the hands, face and feet and vomiting.
Pre-eclampsia can also cause growth problems for the unborn baby. This is because your baby does not receive as much oxygen or as many nutrients as it should because the blood supply to the placenta is disrupted. This is known as intra-uterine growth restriction.
What causes pre-eclampsia?
The causes of pre-eclampsia are not fully known. It is thought, however, that the placenta does not develop properly because the blood vessels are not providing enough blood. There are a number of factors that may influence whether you are at risk of developing pre-eclampsia. These include whether or not it is your first pregnancy, if you have previously experienced pre-eclampsia, if you are a teenager or over 40, if you are expecting multiple babies and if you have a pre-existing condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
How is pre-eclampsia diagnosed?
Pre-eclampsia will usually be noticed by your midwife or GP during your regular antenatal appointments. You will have regular urine tests and blood pressure checks throughout your pregnancy to monitor your health. If you are at higher risk of developing pre-eclampsia your midwife or GP may monitor your urine and blood with greater frequency.
If you experience any of the symptoms that might indicate pre-eclampsia then you should seek immediate medical attention as you could require urgent treatment to ensure the well being of both you and your baby.
How likely is it that I will develop pre-eclampsia?
Up to 10% of first time mothers are likely to develop mild pre-eclampsia. Severe pre-eclampsia develops in 1-2% of all pregnancies. If you have already experienced pre-eclampsia in previous pregnancies it is more likely that you will have it with any future pregnancies.
How is pre-eclampsia treated?
The only way to treat pre-eclampsia is to actually give birth to your baby. This means you will usually be monitored until it is safe for you to give birth, rather than treated. If your midwife or GP believe that you may have pre-eclampsia then they will send you for further tests to establish how severe it is. If it is mild, pre-eclampsia is usually just monitored. You will see your midwife or GP with greater frequency and your blood pressure and urine will be tested with greater regularity.
If your pre-eclampsia is severe then you may need to be admitted to hospital so that close monitoring of you and your baby can be undertaken. One of the most important issues is to lower your blood pressure so you will need to rest and may also be prescribed medication to help with this. You may also be given anticonvulsants to prevent fits occurring.
As delivering your baby and taking away the placenta is the only way to cure pre-eclampsia it may be necessary to deliver your baby early if this is believed to present the least risk to both you and your unborn baby. If possible you will monitored and treated until you reach at least 36 weeks. If you reach 37 weeks then you may be induced. Before this then it is likely that you will have a caesarean section.
What complications can arise?
If pre-eclampsia is not identified and managed then there are a number of serious complications that can develop. In rare cases, eclampsia can develop. This results in seizures and can be life threatening for both mother and baby.
HELLP Syndrome is another condition that can arise. This is a combined liver and blood clotting condition which, although rare, can be dangerous. Again, the only way to cure this condition is to have your baby.
When will I recover from pre-eclampsia?
Most women will fully recover from pre-eclampsia once they have given birth. There should also not be any long term effects on your baby although if they were born early then they may be monitored in a neo-natal unit.
Although rare, pre-eclampsia can be a serious condition. It is therefore important for you to attend your antenatal appointments so that your health can be monitored and any issues picked up and managed as required.