What is Pre-Eclampsia?

Pre-Eclampsia is a serious condition that can occur in the second half of pregnancy (usually after 20 weeks), and can have effects on both mum and baby.

High blood pressure during your pregnancy can be one of the signs of pre-eclampsia. However, high blood pressure on its own does not mean that you definitely have pre-eclampsia. Pre-eclampsia is diagnosed when you have high blood pressure AND signs of organ dysfunction detected by blood and urine tests.

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What causes Pre-Eclampsia?

The exact cause of pre-eclampsia remains unknown; however, researchers and doctors believe that it can happen when the placenta does not form properly. Throughout pregnancy the placenta serves an important role in supplying oxygen and nourishment from the mum to the baby as they grow. In order to support the growing baby, the placenta needs a large, continual supply of blood from the mum. The baby needs this support for healthy growth.

If the placenta does not form properly, this can set off changes in the mum’s body that can have negative effects on both mum and baby.

A common sign used to diagnose pre-eclampsia is proteinuria, which is the term used to describe the presence of too much protein in the urine. Waste products are ordinarily removed from the blood by the kidneys for excretion via urine. When the kidneys are not working properly, proteins that should remain in the blood may be excreted into the urine, resulting in proteinuria.  In mum, pre-eclampsia can lead to kidney dysfunction, which can then lead to proteinuria.

The presence of proteinuria and/or other signs of organ dysfunction, in addition to high blood pressure are the key features for the diagnosis of pre-eclampsia.

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Who is at risk?

Pre-Eclampsia can affect anyone; however certain factors can place you at higher risk for development:

  • If you have a previous history of Pre-Eclampsia,
  • If you have a family history of the condition,
  • If it is your first pregnancy,
  • If you have had a child, but it has been at least 10 years since your last pregnancy,
  • If you have a BMI greater than 30,
  • If you are 40 years old or older,
  • If you have a multiple pregnancy, like twins or triplets.
  • If you have had previous conditions, like chronic high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease and migraine headaches.

Since your risk of developing pre-eclampsia may be affected by these it is important that you make your midwife/doctor aware of your family and medical histories.

Approximately 2-8% of pregnancies worldwide can be affected by pre-eclampsia1 . In Ireland, 2-3% of all pregnancies are affected by pre-eclampsia – but this rises to 5-7% for first time pregnancies. 2

What are the Symptoms of Pre-Eclampsia?

Pre-eclampsia is a serious condition. If symptoms arise you should notify your doctor or midwife. Symptoms of pre-eclampsia include:

  • Headache that won’t go away with medication
  • Swelling of face and eyelids
  • Blurred or spotty vision
  • Sudden nausea and vomiting after 20 weeks
  • Generally feeling unwell after 20 weeks.

However, it is possible not show any of these symptoms. It is therefore very important that you attend all your antenatal appointments for proper monitoring.

In our next blog post, we’ll take you through what can happen if you are diagnosed with Pre-eclampsia, the treatments for it, and how research is looking to improve care for mothers with Pre-eclampsia.

By Aoife Delany

  1. Edgardo Abalos, Cristina Cuesta, Ana L. Grosso, Doris Chou, Lale Say, Global and regional estimates of preeclampsia and eclampsia: a systematic review, European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, Volume 170, Issue 1, 2013, Pages 1-7, ISSN 0301-2115, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ejogrb.2013.05.005. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301211513001966 )
  2. https://hse.ie/eng/services/publications/Clinical-Strategy-and-Programmes/Diagnosis-and-Management-of-Pre-eclampsia-and-Eclampsia.pdf