The dangers of preeclampsia

Contributing columnistAugust 23, 2014 

While preeclampsia, a serious pregnancy complication, affects only 5 percent of pregnant women, it can become fatal for both the mom and baby if left untreated. Preeclampsia is characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to organs in the body, often the kidneys.

Preeclampsia usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy in a woman whose blood pressure has been normal. Unfortunately, the only cure for preeclampsia is to deliver the baby.

Preeclampsia causes the blood vessels to constrict, which results in high blood pressure and a reduced blood flow to important organs, such as the liver, kidneys and brain. When there's less blood flow to those organs and the uterus, the baby can experience poor growth, too little amniotic fluid and the effects of prematurity if the baby has to be delivered prior to full-term.

Preeclampsia often develops suddenly, with a spike in blood pressure. In fact, high blood pressure is typically the first sign of preeclampsia. Other signs and symptoms include protein in urine, severe headaches, change in vision, upper abdominal pain or nausea/vomiting. Sudden weight gain and swelling, particularly in the hands and feet, also often accompany preeclampsia.

In rare cases, preeclampsia can lead to eclampsia, a variant of preeclampsia, which is when pregnant women have seizures following preeclampsia. Women may be administered magnesium sulfate to prevent eclampsia if they are diagnosed with preeclampsia before giving birth.

HELLP syndrome is another variant of preeclampsia and also very dangerous. HELLP is defined by its characteristicsthe breaking down of red blood cells, elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count.

The symptoms of HELLP are similar to preeclampsia, and include headaches, nausea/vomiting, indigestion, abdominal/chest tenderness, upper ride side pain, shoulder pain, pain when breathing deeply, bleeding, changes in vision or swelling. Unlike preeclampsia, HELLP can be difficult to diagnose, making it very important for mothers to be aware of the symptoms.

Dr. Avis Carr is with KentuckyOne Health Obstetrics and Gynecology Associates

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