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17th Jul 2023

Pre-eclampsia in pregnancy: The top signs to look out for from headaches to nausea

Following the tragic passing of Olympian Tori Bowie in April after complications she had during childbirth, it was found in her autopsy that there was evidence of eclampsia.

Eclampsia is a condition that occurs in pregnancy and in the postpartum months and develops when pre-eclampsia is left untreated.

The condition leads to seizures or conclusions, with pre-eclampsia potentially affecting your organs, liver and causing blood clots.

What is pre-eclampsia?

The condition affects pregnant people from around 20 weeks, but can also begin in some mothers within the first six weeks after their baby is born.

The first signs of the condition are high blood pressure (hypertension) and too much protein in your urine. These will be picked up in your routine antenatal appointments, so it is important that you attend all of these, according to the HSE.

You are most at risk of developing this if you already have diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, lupus, a history of this in the family or with a previous pregnancy, if you are over 40 or if it has been 10 years since your last pregnancy.

You are also at a higher risk if you are carrying multiple babies, or have two or more of these pre-existing conditions together.

While it is not always possible to prevent this, you can lower the risk by attending all appointments with you GP and midwife to ensure it is caught early. You may be prescribed low dose aspirin if they are concerned that you may be at risk.

What are the symptoms?

High blood pressure and protein in the urine will be picked up during any antenatal appointment, but if you have any of the following symptoms during your pregnancy or in the first 6 weeks after your baby is born, you should immediate contact your GP immediately.

These are:

  • severe headache
  • changes in vision including blurring, spots or flashing lights
  • pain in the upper part of your tummy, particularly on the right-hand side
  • feel sick (nausea)
  • vomiting
  • shortness of breath
  • swelling of hands, feet, ankles, neck or face, particularly if it’s sudden or getting worse quickly

How is it treated?

If your doctor suspects you have pre-eclampsia, you will be referred to an obstetrician for an assessment in hospital, according to the NHS.

As they monitor how severe it could be, you may need to stay overnight.

The only cure to this is delivering your baby and you will be monitored closely until it is possible for you to give birth, which is typically around 37 to 38 weeks of pregnancy.

While it could be earlier if the condition is more severe, you will be given medication to lower your blood pressure until it is safe to deliver the baby.

If your baby needs to be delivered before 37 weeks, you may be given two steroid injections to help your baby’s lungs develop.

Your doctor will decide on the best time to have the baby, which could be an induced labour or caesarean birth and a neonatologist or paediatrician may be present.

Remember it is important to ask questions during this time and to understand everything that is going on.

Effects of pre-eclampsia

Negative effects associated with this condition are rare, but it can cause issues with organs such as the liver and placenta.

It can affect the way your placenta develops, and means there is a slight risk your baby will not grow as they should.

If you are pre-eclamptic, you will be monitored closely to avoid any issues but it is important to note that these conditions are rare in pregnancy.