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What it is

Preeclampsia occurs when a pregnant woman develops high blood pressure and protein in the urine after the 20th week of pregnancy. A urine sample is taken at most obstetrician visits to check for this condition. It affects up to 8% of all pregnancies and usually occurs in mid-to-late pregnancy and up to six weeks after delivery.

Some women get high blood pressure for the first time during pregnancy without protein in the urine (also called gestational hypertension), which alone is concerning and can complicate pregnancy. It also can lead to preeclampsia.

In particular, preeclampsia may be characterized by:

  • Blood pressure of 140 mmHg/90 mmHg or greater
  • Protein in the urine
  • Swollen feet, legs, fingers and hands

Symptoms of severe preeclampsia may include headache, changes in vision, stomach pain, nausea or vomiting.

Why the concern

Preeclampsia can be very dangerous – and sometimes even life-threatening – for mom and her unborn baby. It can lead to seizures (eclampsia), damage to the liver and blood cells (HELLP syndrome), stroke and early birth. If you have preeclampsia, your health care team will monitor you closely and will induce labor at 37 weeks to prevent further problems.

But even after preeclampsia goes away – often within weeks to a few months after having a baby – women who've had it are more likely to develop heart and vascular problems, including:

  • Risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke

And this risk remains over time. One study showed that compared with women with normal blood pressure readings during pregnancy, those who developed preeclampsia had a higher risk of high blood pressure over the next four decades.

What you can do

  • If you had high blood pressure or preeclampsia during pregnancy, make sure this information is added to your health records for follow-up.
  • Also, tell all your doctors that this problem occurred.
  • Talk with your provider about your risk for heart disease.
  • Advocate for yourself and commit to a heart-healthy lifestyle.
  • Remember: You are more likely to develop preeclampsia again with future pregnancies, so talk with your doctor.
Half of women who had preeclampsia did not receive any additional information or follow-up after three months of delivering a baby. You will need long-term follow-up with careful attention to cardiovascular risk factors and heart-healthy lifestyle.
  • Last Edited 03/11/2021