What is it? What are the symptoms? What are the treatments?

What is pre-eclampsia?

This is the commonest of the more serious conditions of pregnancy, affecting around 10% of first-time mums-to-be. No one fully understands what causes pre-eclampsia, but it indicates a problem with the placenta and is characterised by high blood pressure, protein in the urine and swelling (oedema) of the hands, feet, face and hands, due to fluid retention.

Pre-eclampsia can cause growth restriction in unborn babies, so early treatment is vital. If left untreated, the condition can progress to full eclampsia, which is potentially fatal for mother and baby. Because the symptoms of pre-eclampsia aren't usually noticeable to mums-to-be themselves, it's crucial that you keep all your antenatal appointments, where you'll be checked for signs at each visit. If you have pre-eclampsia in your first pregnancy, you're more likely to have it again in subsequent pregnancies. You're also more at risk if there's a family history of pre-eclampsia. Pre-eclampsia doesn't usually occur until around 20 weeks of pregnancy. Most cases occur from week 27 to birth.

What are the symptoms of Pre-eclampsia?

Most commonly, signs of pre-eclampsia are picked up during the third trimester, but it can occur earlier. At each antenatal appointment, your midwife will examine your hands, face, legs and feet for abnormal swelling. Some water retention in pregnancy is quite normal in the legs and ankles, but if your face and hands start to swell, this can be a sign of pre-eclampsia. You'll also have your urine checked for signs of protein, and your blood pressure will be taken. It's the combination of high blood pressure, protein and swelling that strongly indicates pre-eclampsia. If pre-eclampsia is allowed to develop, more serious symptoms include:

  • distorted vision
  • headache
  • breathlessness
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • shoulder or abdominal pain
  • confusion

These symptoms indicate that eclampsia is developing, and if not treated can be fatal. In full eclampsia, convulsions can occur during pregnancy or labour.

What are the treatments and remedies of Pre-eclampsia?

If you're diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, you'll probably be admitted to hospital for bed rest while the condition is brought under control. You and your baby will be monitored more closely throughout the rest of your pregnancy, and if your baby shows signs of distress or isn't growing as he should be, he may have to be delivered early, usually by caesarean section . Persistent high blood pressure can cause the baby to not get as much oxygen. If your baby is delivered prematurely, he may spend some time in a Special Care Baby Unit until he's strong enough. As long as it's caught and treated early, most mums with pre-eclampsia go on to have perfectly healthy babies. The condition usually disappears with the delivery of the baby.

This guide 

The information in this Bounty A-Z of Family Health is not a substitute for an examination, diagnosis or treatment by a doctor, midwife, health visitor or any other qualified health professional. If in doubt, always speak to a doctor.

Bounty will not be held responsible or liable for any injury, loss, damage, or illness, however this occurs or appears, after using the information given on this website and in particular the A-Z of Family Health.

Further help

For health advice and information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the NHS offers call and web services. You can also visit NHS websites for services, health information and health news at nhs.uk 

  • England – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs.uk 
  • Scotland – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs24.com 
  • Wales – call 0845 4647 , or visit nhsdirect.wales.nhs.uk 
  • Northern Ireland – visit hscni.net