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Preeclampsia and High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy
Topic Overview - What are high blood pressure and preeclampsia?

Blood pressure is a measure of how hard your blood pushes against the walls of your arteries. If the force is too hard, you have high blood pressure (also called hypertension). When high blood pressure starts after 20 weeks of pregnancy, it may be a sign of a very serious problem called preeclampsia.

Blood pressure is shown as two numbers. The top number (systolic) is the pressure when the heart pumps blood. The bottom number (diastolic) is the pressure when the heart relaxes and fills with blood. Blood pressure is high if the top number is more than 140 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg), or if the bottom number is more than 90 mm Hg. For example, blood pressure of 150/85 (say "150 over 85") or 140/95 is high. Or both numbers can be high, such as 150/95.

A woman may have high blood pressure before she gets pregnant. Or her blood pressure may start to go up during pregnancy.

If you have high blood pressure during pregnancy, you need to have checkups more often than women who do not have this problem. There is no way to know if you will get preeclampsia. This is one of the reasons that you are watched closely during your pregnancy.

High blood pressure and preeclampsia are related, but they have some differences.

High blood pressure

Normally, a woman's blood pressure drops during her second trimester. Then it returns to normal by the end of the pregnancy. But in some women, blood pressure goes up very high in the second or third trimester. This is sometimes called gestational hypertension and can lead to preeclampsia. You will need to have your blood pressure checked often and you may need treatment. Usually, the problem goes away after the baby is born.

High blood pressure that started before pregnancy usually doesn't go away after the baby is born.

A small rise in blood pressure may not be a problem. But your doctor will watch your pressure to make sure it does not get too high. The doctor also will check you for preeclampsia.

Very high blood pressure keeps your baby from getting enough blood and oxygen. This could limit your baby's growth or cause the placenta to pull away too soon from the uterus. High blood pressure also could lead to stillbirth.

Preeclampsia is a pregnancy-related problem. The symptoms of preeclampsia include new high blood pressure after 20 weeks of pregnancy along with other problems, such as protein in your urine. Preeclampsia usually goes away after you give birth. In rare cases, blood pressure can stay high for up to 6 weeks after the birth.

Preeclampsia can be deadly for the mother and baby. It can keep the baby from getting enough blood and oxygen. It also can harm the mother's liver, kidneys, and brain. Women with very bad preeclampsia can have dangerous seizures. This is called eclampsia.

What causes preeclampsia and high blood pressure during pregnancy?
Experts don't know the exact cause of preeclampsia and high blood pressure during pregnancy. But they have some ideas about preeclampsia:

Preeclampsia seems to start because the placenta doesn't grow the usual network of blood vessels deep in the wall of the uterus. This leads to poor blood flow in the placenta.

Preeclampsia may run in families. If your mother had preeclampsia while she was pregnant with you, you have a higher chance of getting it during pregnancy. You also have a higher chance of getting it if the mother of your baby's father had preeclampsia.

The mother's immune system may react to the father's sperm, the placenta, or the baby.

Already having high blood pressure when you get pregnant raises your chance of getting preeclampsia.

Problems that can lead to high blood pressure, such as obesity, polycystic ovary syndrome, and diabetes, could raise your risk of preeclampsia.

What are the symptoms?
High blood pressure usually doesn't cause symptoms. But very high blood pressure sometimes causes headaches and shortness of breath or changes in vision.

Mild preeclampsia usually doesn't cause symptoms, either. But preeclampsia can cause rapid weight gain and sudden swelling of the hands and face. Severe preeclampsia causes symptoms of organ trouble, such as a very bad headache and trouble seeing and breathing. It also can cause belly pain and decreased urination.

How are high blood pressure and preeclampsia diagnosed?

High blood pressure and preeclampsia are usually found during a prenatal visit. This is one reason why it's so important to go to all of your prenatal visits. You need to have your blood pressure checked often. During these visits, your blood pressure is measured with a blood pressure cuff ". A sudden increase in blood pressure often is the first sign of a problem.

You also will have a urine test to look for protein, another sign of preeclampsia.

If you have high blood pressure, tell your doctor right away if you have a headache or belly pain. These signs of preeclampsia can occur before protein shows up in your urine.

How are they treated?
Your doctor may have you take medicine if he or she thinks your blood pressure is too high.

The only cure for preeclampsia is having the baby. You may get medicines to lower your blood pressure and to prevent seizures. You also may get medicine to help your baby's lungs get ready for birth. Your doctor will try to deliver your baby when the baby has grown enough to be ready for birth. But sometimes a baby has to be delivered early to protect the health of the mother or the baby. If this happens, your baby will get special care for premature babies.

Do preeclampsia and high blood pressure lead to long-term high blood pressure?
If you have high blood pressure during pregnancy but had normal blood pressure before pregnancy, your pressure is likely to go back to normal after you have the baby. But if you had high blood pressure before pregnancy, you probably will still have it after you give birth.

Experts don't think preeclampsia causes high blood pressure later in life. But women who get preeclampsia may have a higher-than-normal chance of getting high blood pressure after pregnancy or later in life.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise