Preeclampsia is a medical complication that can happen during pregnancy, and sometimes in the first week after giving birth, causing high blood pressure levels and protein in your urine.  

Preeclampsia happens in around 5-8% of pregnancies in Australia and can be life-threatening to both parent and baby in severe cases.  

The cause of preeclampsia is not well known. You might be at a higher risk of developing the condition if:

  • it is your first pregnancy
  • you have a family history of preeclampsia
  • you’re carrying multiple babies, for example, twins or triplets.

Your doctor or midwife will also want to monitor you for preeclampsia if you have pre-existing high blood pressure.

Testing for preeclampsia

You’ll have lots of tests and checks throughout your pregnancy. At each appointment, your doctor or midwife will take a reading of your blood pressure. 

While blood pressure issues are common during pregnancy, consistent readings of 140/90 mm Hg and over can be a red flag for preeclampsia. Your doctor may do some more tests and will talk to you about medication to manage blood pressure. 

Another red flag for preeclampsia is the presence of protein in your urine, which can be picked up quickly by doing a urine test at each appointment with your doctor or midwife. 

Self-monitoring is also very important for picking up preeclampsia early. Head to the emergency department or the hospital where you will give birth if you are pregnant and start to have symptoms like: 

  • sudden blood pressure changes 
  • swelling and water retention in the feet, ankles, face, and hands 
  • headaches and dizziness 
  • visual disturbances like flashing, rainbows, floaters, or brown spots 
  • abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting 
  • any sudden changes in how your baby moves inside you. 

Treating preeclampsia

The only way to treat preeclampsia is to give birth and remove the placenta from your body. This means there is a high risk of premature birth and health complications for babies who are born to parents with severe preeclampsia.  

If you are earlier in your pregnancy and your symptoms are mild, your doctor or midwife might check your blood pressure closely at each appointment and try you on medication to see if the levels go down. 

If you’re having more severe symptoms and are a bit later in your pregnancy, you might need to be admitted to the hospital for rest, medication, and more regular checking of your blood pressure levels and urine. 

Your doctor and midwife will work hard to try and prevent you from needing to give birth too early, but sometimes this will be the safest option for you and your baby.  

Effects of preeclampsia on your baby 

Untreated preeclampsia can cause serious complications for your baby, by affecting your health and the health of the placenta. The placenta is your baby’s lifeline while they are growing, and preeclampsia can stop oxygen and nutrients from travelling through the placenta to your baby. There is also a risk of a condition called placental abruption, where the placenta comes away from the uterus, stopping support to your baby and causing you intense bleeding and pain. 

It is also important to remember that severe health issues, including seizures, organ failure and blood clots, will also affect your baby, putting you both at risk of premature birth and in severe cases, death. This is why parents with severe preeclampsia must deliver their baby immediately.  

Preeclampsia and premature birth

Babies born prematurely can have issues with things like their development, breathing, and blood sugars. It’s normal for premature babies to spend some time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) or the special care nursery (SCN), to make sure they recover from birth well and have good medical support for any issues.

NICU and SCN can be very stressful for parents, especially after a preeclampsia diagnosis and an emergency birth. The doctors, midwives, and nurses will be there to support your new family to recover and start your journey into parenthood. See Premature babies for more information.

Preeclampsia and future pregnancy 

If you’ve previously had preeclampsia, there is a higher risk that you will get it again. This means it will be important for you to see a doctor, like a high-risk obstetrician, for any future pregnancies to make sure you and your baby are as healthy as possible. Speak to your local doctor or maternity hospital about who you can see for a high-risk pregnancy. 

Last updated Monday 19th February 2024