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What is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia (also written as pre-eclampsia) is a condition affecting some pregnant women, usually during the second half of pregnancy (after 20 weeks).

In the UK up to 6% of pregnancies are affected with mild preeclampsia, with 1-2% of cases severe. Figures indicate that 5-8% of pregnancies in the US are affected by preeclampsia.

What are the symptoms of preeclampsia?

The signs of mild preeclampsia are high blood pressure (hypertension) and protein in your urine. There can be further symptoms including swollen feet, ankles, hands and face which are caused by excess fluid retention (edema).

With more severe preeclampsia symptoms can include severe headaches, problems with vision (blurring or an inability to tolerate bright light) and pain just below the ribs or in the abdomen.

The early symptoms of high blood pressure and protein in the urine will usually be picked up if you regularly attend your prenatal appointments but it is important to be aware of, and look out for, any of these symptoms.

Although most cases of preeclampsia are mild, if it is not monitored and treated there can be risks of health complications for both mother and baby.

Who is at risk?

The risk of developing preeclampsia may be greater for first time mums, women who have a history of high blood pressure during pregnancy (gestational hypertension) or whose mothers or sisters have had the condition.

Other risk factors include carrying more than one baby, being a teenager or over 40 and a history pre-pregnancy of high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease.

How can you lower your risk?

It is not possible to prevent preeclampsia but some studies suggest that eating food bars containing the amino acid L-arginine and antioxidant vitamins lowered the risk in high-risk women. It may be more sensible to ensure that your diet includes these nutrients, or to look for good quality supplements to supply them.

One very simple way to lower your risk is making sure you attend all your prenatal appointments, so your health can be carefully monitored and any changes picked up quickly. It is important to be aware of the symptoms and seek medical advice if you are worried.

Other things you can do to help lower your risk and generally maintain a healthy pregnancy are:

  • drink plenty of water
  • try to rest as much as you can (elevate your feet when you’re lying down)
  • exercise regularly
  • try to avoid or cut out caffeine and alcohol
  • limit junk and fried food
  • limit adding salt to your meals.

Focusing on eating plenty of vitamins, minerals, high-antioxidant and potassium-rich foods prior to and during pregnancy can help your body to be as prepared as possible.

Aim for a rainbow variety of fresh fruit and vegetables – bananas, leafy greens, avocados and sweet potatoes are great sources of potassium.

How is preeclampsia treated?

Bed rest may be prescribed, sometimes in hospital in severe cases – lying on your left side can take the weight of the baby off your major blood vessels.

Medication to reduce blood pressure may be prescribed with severe cases of preeclampsia until the baby is born. Sometimes early delivery will be recommended.

Drinking plenty of water (at least 8 glasses a day), increasing protein in your diet and reducing salt can help; your doctor will monitor and advise you and sometimes prescribe a daily dose of aspirin.

It is important to remember that only a small minority of pregnant women develop preeclampsia, and most women who do have the condition go on to have healthy babies.


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