What is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a condition that affects pregnant women, causing high blood pressure and protein to leak from the blood into the urine. Preeclampsia usually manifests after the 20th week of pregnancy. The main symptoms include headaches, blurred vision and swelling of the feet. Delivery of the baby is the best treatment. However, this condition can occur up to 6 weeks after the birth. Women with high blood pressure during pregnancy should remain under close medical supervision. Preeclampsia can be life-threatening to the mother and baby, especially if it develops to the more severe states of HELLP syndrome or eclampsia.


Preeclampsia becomes more common after the 35th week of pregnancy. The exact causes of preeclampsia are not fully understood. It is believed that a problem during the development of the placenta causes the blood vessels to tighten and cause high blood pressure. Preeclampsia affects pregnant women after the 20th week of pregnancy, and can occur up to 6 weeks after the birth. Eclampsia is the severe form of this condition. Other factors which increase the risk of preeclampsia include a first pregnancy, a twin pregnancy, obesity, being older than 35, and having other medical conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or kidney diseases. Women who developed preeclampsia during an earlier pregnancy, or who have a family member who has developed preeclampsia, are at higher risk of developing this condition.


Women with early preeclampsia may not have any symptoms, and the preeclampsia may be diagnosed during a routine prenatal check. The symptoms of preeclampsia include headaches, blurred vision, abdominal pain and swelling of the feet, hands and face. People with preeclampsia may notice that they have foamy urine. Later symptoms of preeclampsia are muscle twitching or spasms, blindness and confusion. These symptoms are a sign that a woman may be developing eclampsia.


A diagnosis of preeclampsia is based on the symptoms, the physical examination, which reveals a blood pressure of higher than 140/90 mmHg, and a test of urine which shows the presence of protein. Blood tests are often done to check blood clotting, liver function and kidney function.


Preeclampsia usually gets better after the delivery of the baby. Women with mild preeclampsia should have their high blood pressure treated with medication and be closely monitored for symptoms. If the symptoms of preeclampsia become worse, hospital admission for close monitoring and for delivery of the baby may become necessary. Women with severe preeclampsia receive a medication called magnesium sulfate through a drip (intravenously) to prevent seizures.


Maintaining a healthy weight, blood pressure and blood sugar levels during pregnancy can help prevent some episodes of preeclampsia. Women at risk of preeclampsia should have their blood pressure and urine checked regularly.

Other names for preeclampsia

  • Pre-eclampsia
  • Toxemia of pregnancy