Also known as: gestational proteinuric hypertension, pre-eclampsia, pregnancy-induced hypertension, toxemia of pregnancy


Genetics Home Reference

Preeclampsia is a complication of pregnancy in which affected women develop high blood pressure (hypertension); they can also have abnormally high levels of protein in their urine (proteinuria). This condition usually occurs in the last few months of pregnancy and often requires early delivery of the infant.

Many women with mild preeclampsia do not feel ill, and the condition is often first detected through blood pressure and urine testing in their doctor's office. In addition to hypertension and proteinuria, signs and symptoms of preeclampsia can include excessive swelling (edema) of the face or hands and a weight gain of more than 3 to 5 pounds in a week due to fluid retention. Affected women may also experience headaches, dizziness, irritability, shortness of breath, a decrease in urination, upper abdominal pain, nausea, or vomiting. Vision changes may develop, including flashing lights or spots, increased sensitivity to light (photophobia), blurry vision, or temporary blindness.

In many cases, symptoms of preeclampsia go away within a few days after the baby is born. In severe cases, however, preeclampsia can damage the mother's organs, such as the heart, liver, and kidneys, and can lead to life-threatening complications. Extremely high blood pressure in the mother can cause bleeding in the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). The effects of high blood pressure on the brain (hypertensive encephalopathy) may also result in seizures. If seizures occur, the condition is considered to have worsened to eclampsia, which can result in coma. About 1 in 200 women with untreated preeclampsia develop eclampsia. Eclampsia can also develop without any obvious signs of preeclampsia.

Between 10 and 20 percent of women with severe preeclampsia develop another potentially life-threatening complication called HELLP syndrome. HELLP stands for hemolysis (premature red blood cell breakdown), elevated liver enzyme levels, and low platelets (cell fragments involved in blood clotting), which are the key features of this condition.

Severe preeclampsia can also affect the fetus, with impairment of blood and oxygen flow leading to growth problems or stillbirth. Infants delivered early due to preeclampsia may have complications associated with prematurity, such as breathing problems caused by underdeveloped lungs.

Women who have had preeclampsia have approximately twice the lifetime risk of heart disease and stroke than do women in the general population. Researchers suggest that preeclampsia, heart disease, and stroke may share common risk factors. Women who have health conditions such as obesity, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, or kidney disease before they become pregnant have an increased risk of developing preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is most likely to occur in a woman's first pregnancy, although it can occur in subsequent pregnancies, particularly in women with other health conditions.

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Preeclampsia is a hypertensive disorder of pregnancy that is characterized by new-onset hypertension with proteinuria presenting after 20 weeks of gestation, and depending on mild or severe forms may initially present with severe headache, visual disturbances, and hyperreflexia.

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Medical Term Other Names Description
Stillbirth Fetal death, Stillborn Death of the fetus in utero after at least 20 weeks of gestation.
Toxemia of pregnancy Hypertensive disorder of pregnancy Pregnancy-induced toxic reactions of the mother that can be as harmless as slight Maternal hypertension or as life threatening as Eclampsia.
Obesity Having too much body fat Accumulation of substantial excess body fat.
Edema Hydrops, Water retention, Fluid retention, Oedema, Dropsy [more] An abnormal accumulation of fluid beneath the skin, or in one or more cavities of the body.
Hypertension Elevated blood pressure, Systemic hypertension, High blood pressure, Increased blood pressure [more] The presence of chronic increased pressure in the systemic arterial system.
Pain An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.
Irritability Irritable
Preeclampsia Pre-eclampsia Pregnancy-induced hypertension in association with significant amounts of protein in the urine.
Seizures Epilepsy Seizures are an intermittent abnormality of the central nervous system due to a sudden, excessive, disorderly discharge of cerebral neurons and characterized clinically by some combination of disturbance of sensation, loss of consciousness, impairment of psychic function, or convulsive movements. The term epilepsy is used to describe chronic, recurrent seizures.
Photophobia Extreme sensitivity of the eyes to light, Photodysphoria, Light hypersensitivity [more] Excessive sensitivity to light with the sensation of discomfort or pain in the eyes due to exposure to bright light.
Stroke Cerebrovascular accidents, Cerebral vascular events Sudden impairment of blood flow to a part of the brain due to occlusion or rupture of an artery to the brain.
Hyperreflexia Increased deep tendon reflexes, Increased reflexes Hyperreflexia is the presence of hyperactive stretch reflexes of the muscles.
Encephalopathy Encephalopathy is a term that means brain disease, damage, or malfunction. In general, encephalopathy is manifested by an altered mental state.
Vomiting Emesis, Throwing up Forceful ejection of the contents of the stomach through the mouth by means of a series of involuntary spasmic contractions.
Nausea A sensation of unease in the stomach together with an urge to vomit.
Abnormality of the kidney Abnormal kidney, Kidney disease, Renal anomaly, Renal anomalies [more] An abnormality of the kidney.
Headache Cephalgia, or pain sensed in various parts of the head, not confined to the area of distribution of any nerve.
Respiratory distress Respiratory difficulties, Shortness of breath, Short of breath, Difficulty breathing, Breathing difficulties [more] Difficulty in breathing. The physical presentation of respiratory distress is generally referred to as labored breathing, while the sensation of respiratory distress is called shortness of breath or dyspnea.
Coma Complete absence of wakefulness and content of conscience, which manifests itself as a lack of response to any kind of external stimuli.
Elevated hepatic transaminases Elevated transaminases, Increased transaminases, High liver enzymes, Abnormal liver enzymes, Elevated liver function tests, Abnormal liver function tests, Subclinical abnormal liver function tests, Abnormal liver function, Elevated liver enzymes, Elevated serum transaminases, Increased liver enzymes, Increased liver function tests [more] Elevations of the levels of SGOT and SGPT in the serum. SGOT (serum glutamic oxaloacetic transaminase) and SGPT (serum glutamic pyruvic transaminase) are transaminases primarily found in the liver and heart and are released into the bloodstream as the result of liver or heart damage. SGOT and SGPT are used clinically mainly as markers of liver damage.
Cerebral hemorrhage Intracerebral hemorrhage, Hemorrhagic stroke Hemorrhage into the parenchyma of the brain.
Eclampsia An acute and life-threatening complication of pregnancy, which is characterized by the appearance of tonic-clonic seizures, usually in a patient who had developed pre-eclampsia. Eclampsia includes seizures and coma that happen during pregnancy but are not due to preexisting or organic brain disorders.
Increased body weight Weight gain Abnormally increased body weight.
Abdominal pain Gastro pain, Gastrointestinal pain, Stomach pain, Abdominal discomfort [more] An unpleasant sensation characterized by physical discomfort (such as pricking, throbbing, or aching) and perceived to originate in the abdomen.
Vertigo Dizzy spell, Dizziness An abnormal sensation of spinning while the body is actually stationary.
Proteinuria Protein in urine, High urine protein levels Increased levels of protein in the urine.

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