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Pregnancy & Parenting > pregnancy

Understanding the Signs and Symptoms of Preeclampsia

By Vera Sizensky

Created: 05/20/2015
Last Updated: 05/20/2015

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Pregnancy comes with many symptoms and side effects—morning sickness, exhaustion, cravings, mood swings, thicker hair and even sensitivity to smells. While these are generally normal, others may be cause for concern and even a sign of a pregnancy-related condition such as preeclampsia. 

Preeclampsia can happen to any pregnant woman during the second half of her pregnancy or up to six weeks after delivery. It's a serious disease related to high blood pressure and is the leading cause of maternal and infant illness and death. By conservative estimates, this disorder is responsible for 76,000 maternal and 500,000 infant deaths globally each year.

Preeclampsia can develop gradually or have a sudden onset, flaring up in a matter of hours, even though the signs and symptoms may have gone undetected for weeks or months.

Early recognition and reporting of symptoms is the key to early detection and management of preeclampsia. Having symptoms doesn't necessarily mean you have preeclampsia, but the symptoms are cause for concern and require immediate medical evaluation. Contact your health care provider right away if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Swelling of the hands and face, especially around the eyes (swelling of the feet is more common in late pregnancy and probably not a sign of preeclampsia)
  • Weight gain of more than five pounds in a week
  • Headache that won't go away, even after taking medication such as acetaminophen
  • Changes in vision like seeing spots or flashing lights; partial or total loss of eyesight
  • Nausea or throwing up, especially suddenly, after mid pregnancy (not the morning sickness that many women experience in early pregnancy)
  • Upper right belly pain, sometimes mistaken for indigestion or the flu
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Gasping or panting
  • A feeling of "I just don't feel right"

It's also important to know that some women with preeclampsia have NO symptoms. The only way your health care provider can diagnose it is by monitoring your blood pressure and protein in your urine, so keep all your prenatal appointments.

To learn more about preeclampsia join HealthyWomen, the Preeclampsia Foundation and the American Stroke Association on Thursday, May 21, at 1 p.m. EST for the #PreAm15 Twitter chat about preeclampsia's impact on brain and heart health.

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