Pregnancy health: Pre-eclampsia, causes and symptoms

Pre-eclampsia – also known as Toxemia or pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH) – is a condition that generally occurs after the 20th week of pregnancy and causes high-blood pressure and protein to leak from the kidneys into the urine. It affects the blood flow to the placenta often leading to smaller or prematurely born babies.

Pre-eclampsia often shows up unexpectedly during routine prenatal checks and the only 'cure' is for the baby to be delivered, which is sometimes recommended before full term. Therefore the impact of pre-eclampsia is more profound earlier on in the pregnancy.


It can range in severity, affecting one-in-ten pregnancies in its mildest form and one in 50 pregnancies severely.

Most women with pre-eclampsia will deliver a healthy baby and make a full recovery. However, some will experience complications which could be life-threatening to mother and/or their child. Left untreated, pre-eclampsia can develop into eclampsia, a much more serious disorder that involves seizures.

Proper prenatal care is essential to diagnose and manage pre-eclampsia.

What causes it?
No-one knows for sure what causes pre-eclampsia, so it is difficult to know who will be affected or how to prevent it.

However, you are thought to be at greater risk if:

- You are pregnant for the first time or it has been ten years or more since your last pregnancy
- You are over 40
- Your mother or sister had it
- You are carrying multiple fetuses
- You had pre-eclampsia in a previous pregnancy (one mum in five will get it again)
- You already have a medical condition such as high-blood pressure or diabetes

There are no symptoms in the early stages of pre-eclampsia, it can only be detected by blood pressure checks and testing the urine for protein. These tests are a routine part of all antenatal appointments so it is important pregnant women attend all their consultations.

Later on signs of pre-eclampsia can include any or all of the following:

- Sudden excessive weight gain unrelated to eating
- Severe and sudden swelling of the hands, face or feet
- Severe headaches
- Pain in the upper abdomen
- Blurred or double vision

Pre-eclampsia accounts for about 15 per cent of premature births, with babies often 'small for dates' because of growth problems.

But the main risk is that pre-eclampsia will develop into a more serious complication.

This is a rare but very serious complication of pre-eclampsia characterized by one or more seizures during pregnancy or in the postpartum period; it's possible to develop eclampsia up to four weeks after your baby is born, particularly if your pre-eclampsia was severe.

Eclampsia occurs when membranes in your brain become irritated leading to seizures or convulsions and putting you and your baby in danger.

Thankfully it only affects around one mum-to-be in 2,000.

HELLP syndrome
A rare liver and blood-clotting disorder that can develop before pre-eclampsia has been diagnosed. It stands for

H - haemolysis, or the breaking down or red blood cells
EL - elevated liver enzymes, when your liver is not working properly
LP - low platelet count, meaning there are not enough platelets, which help the blood to clot, in your bloodstream.

Like eclampsia, HELLP can develop late in the pregnancy or after the birth of the baby.

You are very likely to make a full recovery from pre-eclampsia. In severe cases you may well need to stay in hospital for a few days after the birth, but within a few weeks your blood pressure should return to normal.

It is rare, but sometimes serious complications can lead to longer health problems – eclampsia or HELLP syndrome may result in problems with your kidneys, however this is unusual since in most causes pre-eclampsia is recognised and treated in its early stages.

Please remember, pre and post-natal care is the best way to identify and treat pre-eclampsia. Make sure you attend all your routine check-ups and if you are worried about any symptoms contact your midwife or doctor as soon as possible.

This page is for general information only and should not be treated as a substitute for medical advice

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