Understanding Preeclampsia in Pregnancy

May is Preeclampsia Awareness Month. While preeclampsia only occurs in a small percentage of pregnancies, it is a serious condition. It is important for expectant moms to know the symptoms of preeclampsia and to seek regular prenatal care. At every prenatal appointment, your health care provider screens for preeclampsia by tracking your blood pressure and checking your urine for protein.

What is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a serious blood pressure disorder that can affect all the organs in a woman’s body. Typically, preeclampsia occurs in the second half of pregnancy and most often, in the third trimester. However, it is possible for preeclampsia to occur in the postpartum period as well. While there are no guaranteed ways to prevent preeclampsia, you should work with your health care provider to keep medical conditions, such as hypertension or diabetes, well-controlled.

What are the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia?

While it is possible for preeclampsia to develop without any symptoms, the most common symptoms include:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Excess protein in your urine or other signs of kidney problems
  • Swelling of the face or hands
  • Severe headaches
  • Changes in vision – temporary loss of vision, blurred vision, light sensitivity
  • Pain in the upper abdomen or shoulder
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Reduced urination


What causes preeclampsia?

The exact cause of preeclampsia is unknown. However, the following individuals appear to be at increased risk for developing this condition:

  • Women who are pregnant for the first time
  • Women who have a personal or family history of preeclampsia
  • Women who have chronic hypertension, kidney disease, diabetes, thrombophilia or lupus
  • Women who are 40 years of age or older
  • Women who are pregnant with multiples
  • Women who are obese
  • Women who had in vitro fertilization


What does preeclampsia mean for me and my baby?

Preeclampsia can range from mild to severe and can progress slowly or rapidly. The more severe the preeclampsia and the earlier it occurs in pregnancy, the greater the risks for you and your baby.

  • If you are 37 weeks or further along in your pregnancy, it is likely that your doctor will decide to induce labor to deliver your baby.
  • If you are less than 37 weeks along in your pregnancy, your doctor may be able to treat preeclampsia until your baby has developed enough to be safely delivered.
    • If you have preeclampsia, your doctor may recommend bed rest, careful observation, medication or continued blood and urine testing.
    • If you have severe preeclampsia, your baby may need to be delivered immediately as preeclampsia can affect many organs and cause serious or even life-threatening problems.


As many new moms will tell you, pregnancy, labor and delivery often go differently than they had envisioned. For Virginia Women’s Center patients who encounter preeclampsia or other complications during pregnancy, they can rest assured that a maternal-fetal medicine specialist will collaborate closely with their obstetrician to provide quality and compassionate care.


Additional Resources:

  • High-Risk Pregnancy and Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialists