Approximately 5 to 8 percent of pregnancies are affected by preeclampsia, a disorder in pregnancy that normally occurs after 20 weeks gestation and as late as up to six weeks postpartum in some instances. While its true cause is still unknown, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease and alert your doctor immediately.

Women are at greater risk of preeclampsia if it is their first pregnancy, the patient is obese, suffers from diabetes or kidney disorder, or if she is carrying multiples. "We have all seen this devastating complication of pregnancy," says Dr. Robert Atlas, an OB/GYN and Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. "Worldwide, it is one of the leading causes of maternal death."

Hypertension

The most common sign of preeclampsia, hypertension, or high blood pressure, is defined as anything over 140/90, measured on two separate occasions six hours apart. It is important to be familiar with your pre-pregnancy blood pressure and take note of readings during visits with your doctor.

Proteinuria

The kidneys normally keep protein confined to the blood in the filtering process, however, preeclampsia temporarily damages that filter, allowing the protein to spill into the urine. Your doctor will perform this test at each prenatal visit. A reading of +1 or greater may signify preeclampsia, and your doctor may decide to perform a 24-hour urine collection to determine the exact amount of protein. If left untreated, the disease could cause kidney failure.

Edema (swelling)

Press your thumb into the skin on a swollen area. If an indentation remains, indicating pittingedema, put your feet up and contact your health care provider.

Most women suffer from some swelling in pregnancy. Dr. Atlas admits that it's sometimes difficult to tell the difference between normal swelling and that caused by preeclampsia. "I worry about excessive weight gain in a short period of time," he states, explaining that edema is no longer considered criteria for diagnosis. "I also worry about excessive swelling of the hands and face."

Sudden weight gain

Like swelling, weight gain in pregnancy can often get overlooked. In preeclampsia, sudden weight gain is caused by a significant increase in fluid that remains in the body tissue, thus not getting properly filtered by the kidneys. If you have unexplained weight gain over one or two days, make a note to ask your doctor if she feels you may be at risk.

Headaches and changes in vision

Headaches in preeclampsia can range from dull to severe and throbbing. Call your doctor immediately if you have no relief with over-the-counter medications, if the headache is very painful or if you have sensitivity to light.

Vision changes can represent retinal edema or detachment and signify that the symptoms of preeclampsia are worsening.

Vision changes are some of the most serious symptoms of the disease, Dr. Atlas explains. "Scotomata is the most worrisome sign... visual changes in the eye showing floaters.'' Patients may also experience blurry or temporary loss of vision, sensations of flashing lights, or light sensitivity. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience any vision changes with preeclampsia.

No known cure

Dr. Atlas admits that there is currently no known treatment for the disease. If the condition occurs late in the pregnancy, immediate delivery is recommended. However, mild cases that start early may be managed conservatively through bed rest and close monitoring. "If gone untreated," Dr. Atlas explains, "preeclampsia can cause placental abruption, seizures or worse." If you feel you are showing any of the above signs of preeclampsia, contact your healthcare provider.

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