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What is pre-eclampsia?

Pre-eclampsia is a serious medical condition that can occur after 20 weeks of pregnancy. It typically causes high blood pressure and can affect several of your body organs, including the liver, kidney and brain. If left untreated, it can lead to serious problems for you or your baby.

Pre-eclampsia is the most common serious medical disorder that can occur during pregnancy. Mild pre-eclampsia can occur in up to 1 in 10 pregnancies, and severe pre-eclampsia in up to 1 in 100 pregnancies. Early detection and treatment are important to prevent life-threatening complications.

What risk factors may increase my chances of pre-eclampsia?

You might be at a higher risk of pre-eclampsia if you have had any of the following:

Pre-eclampsia may also be more common if you are:

  • over the age of 40
  • your first pregnancy
  • it has been more than 10 years since your last pregnancy
  • you are very overweight
  • your mother or sisters have had pre-eclampsia

What are the symptoms of pre-eclampsia?

Most women with pre-eclampsia do not have any symptoms. It is usually diagnosed during a routine antenatal appointment.

Women who have severe pre-eclampsia with high blood pressure may also experience kidney problems leading protein in the urine. Women with pre-eclampsia can also have the following symptoms:

  • sudden or rapid swelling of hands, face and feet
  • dizziness
  • headaches that don’t go away with simple pain killers
  • vision problems like flashing lights or spots in your eyes
  • severe pain below the ribs
  • heartburn that doesn’t go away with antacids
  • generally feel very unwell

It is very important to see your doctor, midwife or pregnancy care provider if any of these symptoms occur.

How do I know if I have pre-eclampsia?

Your doctor or midwife will routinely check your blood pressure at every visit during your pregnancy to check that it is within the normal range. If your blood pressure is too high, your doctor may order a number of other tests to check for pre-eclampsia. This may include a urine test to check for protein, blood tests to check your kidney and liver function, and routine physical examinations to check your leg reflexes. Your baby will also be checked using an ultrasound to assess their growth and wellbeing, and heart rate monitoring using a cardiotocograph (CTG).

How is pre-eclampsia treated?

If your pre-eclampsia is mild or moderate, your doctor may recommend that you go to hospital for monitoring and start taking blood pressure medicines. You may also be prescribed treatment to prevent blood clots.

The only complete cure for pre-eclampsia is the birth of your baby. Your doctor may recommend inducing labour early to help manage your pre-eclampsia. Every pregnancy is unique, and your doctor will discuss with you what is best for you and your baby. You may be able to delay inducing labour for a while, or you may need to have your baby before the due date — the exact timing will depend on your particular situation, including how many weeks pregnant you are, your baby’s size and how severe your pre-eclampsia is.

Are there any complications from pre-eclampsia?

The majority of pregnant women with pre-eclampsia will not have any complications once they are on blood pressure medicines and give birth to their baby. However, some pregnant women may experience serious complications such as seizures, a stroke, kidney failure, liver failure or bleeding due to clotting problem.

Women who have had pre-eclampsia may be at an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, or ongoing clotting disorders later in life. Your doctor may ask you to have more regular check-ups so you can receive treatment as early as possible if any of these disorders occur.

Many women feel overwhelmed or distressed after a diagnosis of pre-eclampsia. If this has been your experience, let your doctor or midwife know you need some support. You can also call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby, 7 days a week on 1800 882 436 to speak with a maternal child health nurse.

Does pre-eclampsia affect my baby?

Pre-eclampsia can cause your placenta to not function as well. This can affect your baby and may cause abnormal growth or trigger a premature birth. If your baby is born early or smaller than expected, they may need to be cared for in a special care nursery.

How long will my pre-eclampsia last?

After your baby is born, many of your symptoms of pre-eclampsia will improve, but it can take several days, and sometimes longer, until everything returns to normal. Some of your blood tests may get worse for a day or two before they get better. High blood pressure can continue up to 3 months after your baby is born.

Do I still need treatment for pre-eclampsia after my baby is born?

After your baby is born, you are still at an increased risk of complications for the first few days. You will usually stay in hospital and may need to continue taking medicine for your blood pressure. It is important that you attend your 6-week postnatal check-up to make sure your blood pressure has returned to normal and there is no more protein in your urine.

Will I have pre-eclampsia with other pregnancies?

If you have had pre-eclampsia, you are at a risk of having pre-eclampsia again with any future pregnancies. Before planning any future pregnancies, meet with an obstetrician who can help manage blood pressure conditions during your pregnancy and will help reduce the chance of any complications.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2022

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