Preeclampsia: What It Is, Symptoms and Treatment

Preeclampsia is a life-threatening complication caused by high blood pressure during pregnancy. Untreated, it can damage the mother’s organs, including the kidneys and liver, and lead to seizures, internal bleeding and even stroke.

A leading cause of maternal death, preeclampsia typically develops in the 3rd trimester of pregnancy (or any time after 20 weeks), but it can also occur in the days and weeks after childbirth.

While you may never have this disorder, it’s important to know the warning signs.

Preeclampsia affects 1 in 25 pregnant women in the U.S. Most deliver healthy babies and recover; but some can experience life-threatening complications.

The condition involves persistent high blood pressure and symptoms indicating that other body organs, such as the liver or kidneys, aren’t working properly. One hallmark symptom is the presence of protein in your urine (a reason why your healthcare provider tests your urine at every pregnancy checkup).

Why It’s So Dangerous

Preeclampsia can pose serious, even life-threatening risks to you and the baby growing inside of you.

In Moms: This condition can damage organs (often the liver or kidneys) and lead to eclampsia (seizures during pregnancy) or HELLP syndrome (which stands for hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count, and is a medical emergency). HELLP syndrome damages or destroys red blood cells, impairs blood clotting and can cause internal bleeding in the liver.

In Developing Babies: A mom with preeclampsia may need to deliver her baby prematurely, which can result in serious health problems for the under-developed baby (and, in severe cases, death).

Warning Signs of Preeclampsia

Because it can develop undetected and quickly, it’s crucial to know the warning signs:

Call your pregnancy healthcare provider right way if you experience any of these symptoms during pregnancy or in the weeks after childbirth:

  • A blood pressure reading of 140 / 90 or higher (if you are taking your blood pressure). For a reading of 160 / 110 or higher, head to a hospital emergency department.
  • A bad headache that does not go away
  • Vision changes (including blurriness or even vision loss)
  • Pain in the upper abdomen or shoulder
  • Swelling of the face of hands
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Nausea and vomiting in the second half of pregnancy

Call 9-1-1 or have someone get you to a hospital ED immediately if you have emergency symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Seizures


Treatment for preeclampsia depends on how severe the case is. Some cases can be managed outside the hospital through close monitoring or medication.

In severe cases, the only effective treatment is to deliver the baby. You may be hospitalized and have to deliver your babyas early as 34 weeks, with steroids given to help the baby’s lungs fully develop.

Talk with your healthcare provider about any concerns you have during your pregnancy, as most conditions can be managed effectively and successfully. If you do experiencepersistent high blood pressure, your doctor may recommend:

  • changes in your diet (lose the salt!)
  • increased prenatal check-ups
  • for some women, blood-pressure medication
See also ...

FAQs about preeclampsia and high blood pressure, from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

High blood pressure during pregnancy

Who is at risk for preeclampsia?

This message is not intended to provide individual medical advice. Always seek the advice of a physician or qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have about your health or medical condition, your breastfeeding issues and your infant's health. Never disregard, avoid or delay contacting a doctor or other qualified professional because of something you have read in our emails, webpages or other electronic communications.

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