An Overview of High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy

Symptoms, Types, Treatments, Complications, and Tips

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High blood pressure is a common medical condition. But, what happens when you have high blood pressure and want to have a baby, or you develop high pressure while you’re pregnant?

Having high blood pressure during pregnancy can put you and your baby at risk. Here’s what you need to know about hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, how they affect you and your baby, and what you can do to stay as healthy as possible.

What Is It?

Doctors use two numbers to measure blood pressure. The top number is the systolic blood pressure, and the bottom number is the diastolic pressure. The unit of measurement for pressure is millimeters of mercury (mmHg).

Healthy blood pressure is less than 120 mmHg over 80 mmHg written as 120/80 mmHg. Doctors consider it high blood pressure when the top number measures 140 mmHg or higher OR the bottom number measures 90 mmHg or higher two separate times at least four hours apart.

Risk Factors

Up to 20 percent of women have high blood pressure during pregnancy. You can have high blood pressure before you become pregnant, but you can also have your first experience dealing with hypertension during pregnancy.

Doctors do not always know the reason, but any woman can develop high blood pressure during any pregnancy at any time. There are, however, some conditions can increase the risk. They are: 

Signs and Symptoms

High blood pressure is often a silent health condition. Most people do not know they have it until a health professional does a routine blood pressure check.

So, the best way to find out if your blood pressure is high is to see your doctor.

When you become pregnant, the doctor will check your blood pressure during your first prenatal exam and at each visit after that. If your blood pressure is up, your doctor will recheck it before making a diagnosis of hypertension. Remember, to be considered high there must be two high readings at least four hours apart.

Some symptoms that are associated with high blood pressure, but could also be symptoms of other conditions are:

  • Headache
  • Nosebleed
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vision changes
  • Redness or flushing of the face
  • Loss of coordination or balance

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, call your doctor.

Hypertensive Disorders

High blood pressure during pregnancy is a condition that affects women in different ways. It can be something you have under control before you become pregnant or something that comes on during pregnancy and gets progressively worse until you deliver your child.

The way it may affect you and how it's managed will depend on the type of hypertension you have.

Chronic Hypertension

Chronic hypertension is high blood pressure that is long lasting and not a condition that you develop because of your pregnancy.

 

You have chronic hypertension if: 

  • You already have high blood pressure before you become pregnant.
  • You develop high blood pressure before your 20th week of pregnancy. 
  • You continue to have high blood pressure 12 weeks after your baby's birth.

Gestational Hypertension 

High blood pressure that can be directly associated with your pregnancy is called gestational hypertension. You have gestational hypertension if:

  • You have not had a problem with your blood pressure before your pregnancy.
  • You develop high blood pressure during your pregnancy, usually after the 20th week.
  • You don’t have another health issue that could be causing the rise in blood pressure. 
  • You do not have any signs of preeclampsia such as protein in your urine.

Gestational hypertension is a temporary health issue. It typically goes away on its own by 12 weeks after the baby is born.

Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is a high blood pressure issue that is specific to pregnancy. It affects many systems and organs in the body including the heart, kidneys, liver, brain, and placenta.

Mild preeclampsia is a new diagnosis of high blood pressure (140/90 mmHg) after the 20th week of pregnancy with either protein in the urine (urine dipstick +1 or greater) or other symptoms of preeclampsia. But, the symptoms of preeclampsia can get worse and become severe. Symptoms of severe preeclampsia are:

  • Very high blood pressure with a systolic reading over 160 mmHg or a diastolic reading over 110 mmHg two times at least 4 hours apart
  • Protein in the urine (urine dipstick +3 or higher)
  • Swelling (edema) especially of the hands and face
  • Changes in vision
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • A headache

Preeclampsia Superimposed on Chronic Hypertension 

Preeclampsia superimposed on chronic hypertension is when a pregnant woman already has high blood pressure, but pregnancy makes it worse. 

  • Symptoms usually come on after the 20th week.
  • Blood pressure issues become worse and more difficult to control.
  • The urine begins to show protein or proteinuria gets worse than it has been.

Treatment

The treatment of hypertension during pregnancy depends on the type of high blood pressure you have, how high your blood pressure is, and your symptoms. If your blood pressure is under control your doctor may: 

  • Monitor you closely with regular blood pressure checks, bloodwork and urine tests.
  • Coordinate your prenatal care with a cardiologist and a perinatologist. High blood pressure during pregnancy needs special attention. Your doctor may refer you to a high-risk doctor who specializes in caring for women with more complex needs during pregnancy
  • Prescribe medicine to control your blood pressure. Antihypertensive medication such as labetalol (Normodyne), methyldopa (Aldomet), and nifedipine (Adalat) are commonly used during pregnancy and generally recommended as safe by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). On the other hand, ACE inhibitors such as captopril (Capoten) can affect a growing, developing baby. 
  • Have you take a low dose baby aspirin (81 mg a day). For those at risk for preeclampsia, ACOG recommends a daily low-dose aspirin after the 12th week of pregnancy to reduce the risk.
  • Have you increase your calcium intake or take a calcium supplement. Low calcium levels can affect blood pressure, so the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends calcium supplements to decrease the chance of preeclampsia and premature birth especially for women who do not take in enough calcium through their diet.
  • Monitor the baby’s growth and well-being through heart rate checks, ultrasounds, and other fetal tests.

If your blood pressure is getting worse or you're developing preeclampsia, your doctor may:

  • Put you in the hospital depending on how severe your symptoms are.
  • Monitor you and the baby much more closely.
  • Try to keep preeclampsia from getting worse and give the baby more time to grow and develop before birth. 
  • Give you an intravenous (IV) drug called magnesium sulfate to prevent seizures. 
  • Deliver the baby. The only way to truly relieve the symptoms and stop the progression of preeclampsia is to deliver the baby.

Complications

High blood pressure can lead to many health problems including: 

During pregnancy, high blood pressure can lead to additional problems. Preeclampsia and eclampsia are the most dangerous complications of uncontrolled high blood pressure during pregnancy. They can cause: 

Premature birth: The cure for some of the serious complications of high blood pressure during pregnancy is the birth of the baby. Doctors may have to make the difficult decision to deliver the baby earlier than full-term. 

Intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR): High blood pressure can affect the flow of nutrients from the placenta to the baby causing IUGR or a baby who is smaller than expected (SGA).

Lack of oxygen: Issues with the placenta can also interrupt the amount of oxygen that’s going to the baby. 

Placental abruption: High blood pressure can increase the chances of placental abruption. It's a condition where the placenta detaches from the uterine wall causing hemorrhage. Placental abruption is an emergency that needs immediate care for both mom and baby. 

C-section:  Pregnant moms with hypertension are more likely to deliver through c-section. C-sections are surgery, and surgery has risks including bleeding and infection. 

HELLP Syndrome: HELLP syndrome is preeclampsia along with:

  • Hemolysis (H) - the break down of red blood cells
  • Elevated Liver Enzymes (EL) - high ALT and AST 
  • Low Platelet Count (LP) - thrombocytopenia. 

Eclampsia: Preeclampsia becomes eclampsia if seizures begin. It can also lead to a coma. 

Death: Although it is rare to die from pregnancy-related complications in countries such as the United States, when it does happen, hypertensive disorders that lead to preeclampsia and eclampsia are the main life-threatening issues.

Prevention

There is no known way to prevent blood pressure disorders during pregnancy. However, a healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risk. You can:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat well 
  • Exercise regularly (if it's OK with your doctor)
  • Take your prenatal vitamins
  • Get regular prenatal care
  • Reduce stress as much as possible
  • Have a good support system
  • Have strong coping skills

These things can help lower the chance of developing high blood pressure. But, they can’t prevent it. Therefore, seeing your doctor for routine screenings is the best way to be sure your blood pressure readings stay within the healthy limits. Plus, if they do start to rise, early detection is essential. It allows your doctor to give you the best possible treatment and get you back under control as quickly as possible. 

Tips for Staying Healthy

High blood pressure during pregnancy can become a dangerous situation and increase your risk of developing preeclampsia. Here are some tips to lower your risk of complications and stay as healthy as possible during your pregnancy. 

  • Get prenatal counseling. If you already know you have high blood pressure and you want to start a family, see your doctor and your cardiologist before you become pregnant to go over your medication and make a plan for your pregnancy. 
  • Discuss medication with your doctor. If you are taking blood pressure medicine, be sure to talk to your doctor about whether or not it’s safe for you to continue using that particular drug during pregnancy. Your doctor may want you to see your cardiologist to change your medication while you’re pregnant. 
  • Go to all your prenatal appointments. Early and routine prenatal care is the best way to keep on top of your blood pressure and general health during pregnancy. Your doctor will see you more often to check your blood pressure and monitor blood work and urine tests. 
  • Learn what to watch out for. Be aware of the signs that your condition is getting is worse such as a headache, pain, sudden weight gain or edema, and less movement from the baby. 
  • Monitor the baby’s movements. Your doctor will monitor your baby through ultrasounds and other types of prenatal testing. She will also have you keep a close on your baby’s movements each day
  • Take care of yourself. Try to keep your stress levels low, eat a well-balanced diet with limited salt, rest when you can, and seek out your support system. 
  • Control your weight. Try not to gain an excessive amount of weight during your pregnancy. If you are overweight, talk to your doctor about the recommended weight gain for your height, weight, and BMI. 
  • Get a little physical activity. Ask your healthcare provider about starting or continuing an exercise program during your pregnancy. Studies show that yoga may be helpful for women with high blood pressure. 
  • Mind your emotional and mental health, too. See a health care professional if you’re feeling sad, depressed, or extremely anxious.

A Word From Verywell

High blood pressure is one of the most common complications of pregnancy. It can be serious, but it is not always a problem. With preconception counseling, regular prenatal care, close monitoring, and the proper treatment, you and your doctors can work together to keep your blood pressure under control and reduce the risk of complications for you and your baby. 

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