May is Pre-Eclampsia Awareness Month. If you are pregnant or are considering becoming pregnant, pre-eclampsia is an important condition to know about, as it only affects women during pregnancy. Briefly, pre-eclampsia is a form of hypertension, or high blood pressure, caused by abnormally narrow blood vessels developing as new blood vessels grow to support the development of the fetus.It may be caused by damaged blood vessels, not enough blood flow, immune system problems, or genetics , but there are additional risk factors that contribute to developing preeclampsia.
Pre-eclampsia can develop anytime during pregnancy, but it most often occurs after 20 weeks [1.1], and the earlier it develops, the higher risk it poses to a pregnant woman and her unborn baby. Left untreated, pre-eclampsia can be life threatening to both mother and child, and only few things have been demonstrated successful in preventing the condition, including controlling risk factors if possible, but also calcium supplementation and low dose aspirin. Supplements like vitamins and fish oils do not have significant evidence in preventing pre-eclampsia, although research is ongoing [1.2]. Common risk-factors for pre-eclampsia include [1.3, 2]
- First Pregnancy: Risk is highest if you are pregnant for the first time—but it also increases if you had pre-eclampsia during a previous pregnancy.
- Personal or Family History: If you, or a family member (mother, aunt, grandmother, sister) have had pre-eclampsia, you are at higher risk.
- Age over 40.
- Age under 18.
- Having multiples. Twins, triplets, quadruplets… more kids, more risk.
- In-vitro fertilization treatment.
- Having babies less than two years apart.
- Having babies more than ten years apart.
- Different fathers. Each pregnancy carried with a new (different) father from the previous increases risk of pre-eclampsia.
- Chronic disease history. If you have hypertension, kidney disease, organ transplant, lupus, other autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis, a history of blood clots, diabetes (type 1 or type 2), sickle cell disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) or migraine headaches, having these conditions under control as much as is possible is important to reduce your risk.
Certainly, these factors should never discourage the choice to have children! However, if you have these risk factors, ensure you are monitored closely during your pregnancy to ensure you and your baby remain healthy and well taken care of! Obesity is another risk factor for pre-eclampsia: if possible, losing weight before choosing to become pregnant can help. However, this may not be possible, and if so, you can still have a healthy pregnancy with close monitoring just like any higher risk group! [1.3]
Pre-eclampsia is not always preventable, but knowing your risk is important to ensure you are monitored for the condition effectively, as it can develop without symptoms, or, with symptoms including headaches, swelling, difficulty breathing (from water retention due to kidney failure that may result), abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting that may seem to be normal parts of pregnancy. Severe headaches, vision problems, decreased urination, and other symptoms you believe to be abnormal, should always be addressed by a doctor [1.4]. Ask your doctor for more information and how these things may apply for you.
Pre-eclampsia is only “curable” by delivering the baby. If the condition develops late in pregnancy, the baby is well developed, and older than 37 weeks, the baby is often delivered, mother and baby are monitored, and then sent home as usual. However, if pre-eclampsia begins earlier in a pregnancy, the mother may be treated with medications for hypertension, bed-rest, and hospitalization until the baby is considered to have grown enough to be delivered with low-risk . However, if risk is high to mother or baby, the baby will often be delivered pre-term, and supportive treatment will be given . To avoid this, doctors will try medication, bed rest, and sometimes hospitalization, to ensure the wellbeing of both mother and baby.
The highest risk always remains if the condition is untreated—untreated pre-eclampsia can lead to eclampsia, most often characterized by seizures, which can be life-threatening. Pre-eclampsia less frequently can develop within 48 hours following pregnancy, or even as long as six weeks after the baby is born. For these reasons, despite the business of a new baby, it’s important that you continue to pay attention to your body and address any signs that may seem off—sleep deprivation, postpartum depression, and other conditions may make recognizing symptoms more difficult —but any abnormal symptoms should always be addressed. It is better to be safe than sorry!
Learn more about pre-eclampsia from the Pre-Eclampsia Foundation. If you have pre-eclampsia, or chronic hypertension, consider wearing medical ID jewelry to alert medical professionals to your condition. Some women also choose to wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace to identify their pregnancy to medical personnel—this can also allow proper precautions to be taken with medications and medical imaging if you are unable to speak for yourself. Explore our collection at MyIdentityDoctor.com.