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Preeclampsia on the rise: What every pregnant woman should know

blood pressure

Preeclampsia is a severe medical condition that occurs during pregnancy— it is the leading cause of illness and death in both mothers and babies worldwide. The condition affects 5 to 8 percent of pregnancies and the amount of women being diagnosed have gone up 11 percent, according to a recent study in the British Medical Journal.

What’s more, new recommendations on how to diagnose preeclampsia are now being used, which experts believe will identify more women with the condition.  

Here, find out what preeclampsia is, what the new guidelines could mean for you, and what you can do to have a healthy pregnancy.  

Could you have preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia, is diagnosed after 20 weeks of pregnancy and happens when a woman has both high blood pressure (140 over 90 or higher) and protein in her urine.

Under previous guidelines, pregnant women had to have both of these factors to be diagnosed. Yet in November 2013, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a task force report stating that only high blood pressure was required.

So why the change?

“They want to make sure they’re not delaying diagnosis in somebody,” said Dr. Dr. Sara Gottfried, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Berkeley, Cali., and author of the New York Times bestseller The Hormone Cure.  

So instead of taking a “watch and wait” approach, if a woman’s blood pressure is elevated, she’s automatically diagnosed with preeclampsia, she said.

Preeclampsia has no known cause.
“Preeclampsia is a very complex disease,” said Dr. Vivian Romero, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Spectrum Health Medical Group in Grand Rapids, Mich. “We really don’t know how it happens.”

Experts believe the obesity epidemic may be to blame, especially because women who are overweight or obese are more likely to have preeclampsia.

Other risk factors include: a history of high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, or preeclampsia during a previous pregnancy.

Women over 35, African America women or those having multiples are at increased risk, as well.

Preeclampsia has serious risks.
Pregnant women with preeclampsia can have blood pressure so high that they have a sudden stroke.  It can also cut off blood flow to the placenta, restricting oxygen and nutrients to the baby, which can cause growth delays, low birth weight, preterm birth or even death.

Left untreated, preeclampsia can progress to eclampsia which can cause seizures in the mom and brain damage in the baby.

“You’re cutting of the blood flow to your baby, so it requires immediate delivery,” Gottfried said.  

Typically, preeclampsia resolves after mom gives birth, yet some women can continue to have it postpartum.

What’s more, women with the condition are twice as likely to have a stroke and four times as likely to have high blood pressure later in life, according to an American Heart Association report released in February.

Managing preeclampsia can be extra challenging because of diagnosis time, Romero said. The earlier in the pregnancy, the more risks there are— women are often put on bedrest to help manage high blood pressure.

If, when diagnosed, the pregnancy is less than 34 weeks, steroids can help the baby’s organs to mature so the baby has less risk for complications, Romero said. If the diagnosis comes at full-term, doctors may deliver the baby ahead of schedule.

Know the signs.
The most common warning signs are severe headaches, changes in vision, rapid weight gain and swelling of the hands and feet— but oftentimes preeclampsia is a silent condition.  

One other sign to look for is abdominal pain under the right ribcage. This is usually an indicator of HELLP syndrome, a more severe form of preeclampsia.

What you can do.
Although there is no surefire way to prevent preeclampsia, experts agree that optimizing your health before pregnancy is key. That means having a normal body mass index (BMI), exercising and eating a healthy diet. If you have diabetes, getting your blood sugar levels under control is important.

According to a new report published in the journal Epidemiology, Vitamin D from diet and supplements may also help. The study found that women who have a vitamin D deficiency during the first 26 weeks of pregnancy may develop severe preeclampsia.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women's issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.