Symptoms of pre-eclampsia
Most people only experience mild symptoms. But it's important to manage the condition, in case severe symptoms or complications develop. Generally, the earlier pre-eclampsia develops the more severe the condition will be.
Early signs and symptoms
In the early stages, pre-eclampsia causes:
- high blood pressure (hypertension)
- protein in urine (proteinuria)
You probably won't notice any symptoms of either of the above. But your GP or midwife should pick them up during your routine antenatal appointments.
High blood pressure affects up to 10 per cent of all pregnant women.
If you are pregnant and develop high blood pressure, this alone doesn't mean you have pre-eclampsia.
Your urine will be tested to see if there’s protein in it. Finding protein doesn’t mean that you have the condition - it depends on how much protein you have and what symptoms you are experiencing.
As pre-eclampsia progresses, it may cause:
- severe headaches
- vision problems, such as blurring or seeing flashing lights
- severe heartburn
- pain just below the ribs
- nausea or vomiting
- shortness of breath
- excessive weight gain caused by fluid retention
- feeling very unwell
- sudden increase in oedema – swelling of the feet, ankles, face and hands
Without immediate treatment, pre-eclampsia may lead to a number of serious complications, including:
- convulsions (eclampsia)
- HELLP syndrome (a combined liver and blood clotting disorder)
These complications are rare.
Pre-eclampsia is easily diagnosed during the routine checks you have while you're pregnant.
During these antenatal appointments:
- your blood pressure is regularly checked for signs of high blood pressure
- a urine sample is tested to see if it contains protein
If you notice any of the symptoms of pre-eclampsia between your antenatal appointments, see your midwife or GP for advice.
People who can be affected
Mild pre-eclampsia affects up to about four per cent of women who are in their first pregnancy and two per cent of those who are in their second pregnancy.
Eclampsia affects less than three women giving birth in every 10,000. HELLP affects less than one per cent of pregnancies.
There are a number of things that can increase your chances of developing pre-eclampsia, such as:
- having diabetes, high blood pressure or kidney disease before starting pregnancy
- having another condition, such as lupus or antiphospholipid syndrome
- having developed the condition during a previous pregnancy
Other things that can slightly increase your chances of developing pre-eclampsia include:
- having a family history of the condition
- being over 40 years old
- it having been at least 10 years since your last pregnancy
- expecting multiple babies (twins or triplets)
- having a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or over
If you have two or more of these together, then your chances are higher.
If you're thought to be at a high risk of developing pre-eclampsia, your GP will refer you to a consultant at the hospital to decide how best to reduce the risk.
Causes of pre-eclampsia
Although the exact cause of pre-eclampsia isn't known, it's thought to occur when there's a problem with the placenta. The placenta is the organ that links the baby's blood supply to the mother's.
If you're diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, you should be referred for an assessment by a specialist, usually in hospital.
While in hospital, you'll be monitored closely. This is to find out how severe the condition is and whether a hospital stay is needed.
The only way to cure pre-eclampsia is to deliver your baby. You’ll usually be monitored regularly until it's possible for your baby to be delivered.
Although for most women who develop pre-eclampsia, there are no problems and the symptoms improve soon after the baby is delivered, for a small number, there's a risk of serious complications.
There's a risk that the mother will develop fits called ’eclampsia’. These fits can be life-threatening for the mother and baby, but they're rare.