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Understanding Preeclampsia

Preeclampsia is high blood pressure (hypertension) that happens during pregnancy. It often shows up around the 20th week of pregnancy. It often goes back to normal by the 12th week after you give birth. It can lead to serious health risks for you and your baby. During your pregnancy, your healthcare provider will watch your blood pressure.

Healthcare provider taking pregnant woman's blood pressure
Your blood pressure will be monitored regularly throughout your pregnancy to help check for preeclampsia.


A common symptom of preeclampsia is high blood pressure. Other symptoms may include:

  • Rapid weight gain

  • Protein in your urine

  • Headache

  • Belly (abdominal) pain on your right side

  • Vision problems. These include flashes or spots.

  • Swelling (edema) in your face or hands. This also often happens near the end of normal pregnancies, even without preeclampsia.

Tests you may have

Your healthcare provider will want to check your blood pressure throughout your pregnancy. If your blood pressure is high, you may have the following tests:

  • Urine tests to look for protein

  • Blood tests to confirm preeclampsia

  • Fetal monitoring to make sure that your baby is healthy

Treating preeclampsia

You may need to take a daily low dose of aspirin if you are at risk for preeclampsia. Preeclampsia almost always ends soon after you give birth. Until then, your healthcare provider can help manage your condition. If your symptoms are mild, you may need activity limits at home, including bed rest and no heavy lifting. If your symptoms are severe, you will stay in the hospital. Hospital treatment includes:

  • Activity limits to help control blood pressure. This means no heavy lifting and 8 hours per day lying down with the feet up.

  • Magnesium IV (intravenous) drip during labor to prevent seizures

  • Induced labor or surgical delivery by cesarean section. Delivery is considered the cure for preeclampsia.

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider if swelling, weight gain, or other symptoms come on quickly or are severe. Some cases of preeclampsia are more severe than others. Your symptoms also may change or get worse as you get closer to your due date.

Who’s at risk?

No one knows what causes preeclampsia. Preeclampsia can happen in any pregnant woman. But it is more common in first-time pregnancies. Things that increase the risk include:

  • Previous pregnancies. You are at risk if you had preeclampsia, intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR), preterm birth, placental abruption, or fetal death in a past pregnancy.

  • Health history of mother. You are at risk if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, kidney disease, autoimmune disease such as lupus, or a family history of preeclampsia.

  • Current pregnancy. You are at risk if this is your first pregnancy, or if you have multiple fetuses, are younger than age 18 or older than 40, or used in vitro fertilization.

  • Race. You are at risk if you are black.

Dangers of preeclampsia

If not treated, preeclampsia can cause problems for you and your baby. The placenta is the organ that nourishes your baby. It may tear away from the uterine wall. This can put the baby at risk for health problems (fetal distress) and premature birth. Preeclampsia can also cause these health problems:

  • Kidney failure or other organ damage

  • Seizures

  • Stroke

Once you give birth

In most cases, preeclampsia goes away on its own soon after you give birth. This is often by the 12th week after you deliver. Within days of delivery, your blood pressure, swelling, and other symptoms should get better. For some women, problems from preeclampsia can continue after delivery.

Postpartum preeclampsia that develops within the first 48 hours after delivery is rare. Another type of postpartum preeclampsia that develops more than 48 hours after delivery is called late-onset preeclampsia. It is also rare. Contact your healthcare provider right away if you have symptoms of preeclampsia after you deliver.

Online Medical Reviewer: Donna Freeborn PhD CNM FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Irina Burd MD PhD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 12/1/2019
© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.