What Is Preeclampsia?

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During your pregnancy, you probably noticed that you get your blood pressure checked at every visit and that you have to pee in a cup almost as often. That’s because your care team is making sure that you don’t develop any pregnancy complications. One of the main complications they are checking is a condition called preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia is a fairly common pregnancy condition characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine. If untreated, it can have dangerous consequences for pregnant people and their babies. Thankfully, when caught early, preeclampsia is treatable, and most pregnant folks are able to go on to have healthy pregnancies and deliveries.

Let’s take a look at what preeclampsia is, what its symptoms are like, how it's diagnosed, treatment options, and how to cope if you’ve been diagnosed with this condition.

What Parents Should Know

Preeclampsia is a condition that’s usually diagnosed after the 20th week of pregnancy. It affects about 2% to 8% of pregnancies worldwide. The condition is marked by high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine.

When preeclampsia isn’t addressed, it can have serious consequences for both parents and infants, including seizures, premature delivery, organ failure, and death. That’s why it’s important for pregnant people to regularly get tested for preeclampsia and for prompt treatment to begin if the condition is diagnosed. The good news is that with treatment, the most serious consequences of preeclampsia can be avoided.

Symptoms of Preeclampsia

One of the challenges of preeclampsia is that many people don’t have obvious symptoms. “Preeclampsia symptoms can be vague at times,” says Jill Hechtman, MD, an OB/GYN at OB Hospitalists of Florida, part of Pediatrix Medical Group. Some pregnant people have no symptoms at all, while others have symptoms that may just look like the normal annoyances of pregnancy, says Dr. Hechtman. “It is very important to get routine prenatal care so that your doctor or midwife can recognize the difference between normal pregnancy symptoms and preeclampsia,” she says.

One of the most common symptoms of preeclampsia that is often mistaken for another common pregnancy symptom is a headache, says James Miller, MD, an OB-GYN in Wooster, Ohio. But while headaches are common in pregnancy, preeclampsia headaches are a little different. “Headaches relating to preeclampsia may have visual changes and be unresolved after taking Tylenol,” Dr. Miller says.

Other common symptoms you may notice include extreme swelling of the hands and feet as well as pain in your upper right abdominal region, Dr. Miller explains. “The challenge is that preeclampsia most commonly happens in the third trimester and both hand swelling and abdominal pain are extremely common then, making these symptoms unreliable for the diagnosis of preeclampsia,” he describes.

There are a few other symptoms you may experience, Dr. Hechtman says, including spots in front of your eyes (scotoma). At times, pregnant people with preeclampsia experience nausea and vomiting, dizziness, and sudden weight gain, she adds. According to Dr. Miller, if you are experiencing shortness of breath or chest pain, these are serious symptoms and you contact your OB/GYN, midwife, or healthcare provider immediately.

Diagnosing Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is often diagnosed during one of your routine prenatal visits, says Dr. Hechtman. However, she points out, if you notice symptoms on your own, you shouldn’t wait for a prenatal visit, and should instead schedule a visit with your healthcare provider, or go to the emergency room.

“The diagnosis of preeclampsia is made based on the elevation of your blood pressure, edema (swelling), and protein in your urine,” Dr. Hechtman says. “Once suspected, your clinician will order further testing to make sure you do not have evidence of severe disease.”

If your OB/GYN or midwife suspects that you have preeclampsia, some of the tests that will be carried out may include more blood work and a more thorough urinalysis, says Dr. Miller. “These labs are evaluating your liver, kidneys, platelets, and protein in your urine,” he says. Your provider will also want to do an ultrasound to make sure your baby is growing appropriately and conduct continued fetal monitoring to assess your baby’s health status, Dr. Hechtman says.

Treatment for Preeclampsia

If you are diagnosed with preeclampsia, the main focus will be to get your blood pressure under control, says Dr. Hechtman. To that end, medications called antihypertensives are often used; these medications lower blood pressure. If you have severe preeclampsia, you will likely be prescribed a medication called magnesium sulfate, says Dr. Hechtman. This medication prevents seizures, which is one of the most severe outcomes of preeclampsia.

In addition to blood pressure monitoring and treatments to lower blood pressure, there will also be increased fetal monitoring (usually ultrasounds), according to Dr. Miller. “Ultrasounds will evaluate the baby's growth, fluid, movement, and breathing,” Dr. Miller describes. Often, ultrasounds for preeclampsia monitoring happen as frequently as twice a week, he says.

If any troubling results come up in the ultrasounds or your lab work, early delivery of your baby may be advised. “Your doctor will also talk to you about delivery timing based on your symptoms, labs, blood pressures, and ultrasound findings,” Dr. Miller explains. “In the majority of cases, you will be able to attempt a vaginal delivery and will not require a cesarean section unless medically indicated.” Still, he says C-section delivery is often more likely for people with preeclampsia.

Coping with Preeclampsia

Getting any kind of concerning diagnosis during pregnancy can be stressful. Keep in mind that preeclampsia is common and is usually caught early, thanks to regular blood pressure and urine testing during pregnancy. Not only that, but most of the time, preeclampsia can be managed.

“The best way to cope with the diagnosis of preeclampsia is to listen to your doctor or midwife,” recommends Dr. Hechtman. “Although preeclampsia is common, it can become dangerous.” The ultimate goal of care is preserving the safety of you and your baby, and that’s why it’s important to follow your physician’s instructions carefully, she says.

It can be helpful to understand that pregnancy is one of those things that doesn’t always go according to plan—and that's okay. “Pregnancy is challenging because sometimes the way we wished for our birth experience to be doesn't turn out how we envisioned,” says Dr. Hechtman. She advises parents to stay as relaxed as possible and focused on a positive outcome.

Dr. Miller suggests that parents not compare themselves to others when it comes to preeclampsia. There are many different ways the diagnosis pans out and it can be easy to get sucked into scary stories. He also advises parents to stay off of social media when possible.

“Many parents get diagnosed with preeclampsia and still have a beautiful pregnancy,” says Dr. Miller. “Be careful what you read on social media posts: everyone with preeclampsia has a unique medical journey.”

A Word From Verywell

Pregnancy is an exciting time, but also one often marked by stress. This is especially true if you are diagnosed with something unexpected like preeclampsia. Doctors and midwives have a lot of experience treating people with preeclampsia and most people go on to have a healthy pregnancy and healthy baby. As you navigate your preeclampsia diagnosis, you should be in close contact with your medical team, and always reach out with questions and concerns.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High blood pressure during pregnancy.

  2. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Gestational Hypertension and Preeclampsia: ACOG Practice Bulletin, Number 222. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2020;135(6):e237-e260. doi:10.1097/AOG.0000000000003891

  3. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Preeclampsia and Eclampsia.

  4. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What are the treatments for preeclampsia, eclampsia, & HELLP syndrome?

  5. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What are the treatments for preeclampsia, eclampsia, & HELLP syndrome?

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.