Pre-eclampsia

Pregnant woman having her blood pressure checked

Pre-eclampsia is a condition that occurs in, or soon after, pregnancy.

Although it isn’t known exactly what causes pre-eclampsia, it’s thought to be caused by problems with the placenta.

In cases of pre-eclampsia, the placenta doesn’t get enough blood from the mother’s body. This means blood flow between mother and baby is disrupted. It affects up to 1 in 25 pregnancies in the UK. 

What are the symptoms of pre-eclampsia?

The main symptoms of pre-eclampsia should be picked up by your midwife or GP during an antenatal appointment. They are:

Other symptoms may include:

  • pain just below your ribs
  • severe headaches
  • swelling in your feet, ankles, face and hands
  • vision problems.

If you’re pregnant and you experience any of these symptoms, contact your GP or midwife immediately. 

Why is pre-eclampsia dangerous?

If pre-eclampsia goes undiagnosed or untreated, it can affect mother and baby. Pre-eclampsia can cause problems with the mother’s kidneys, liver and brain and can also lead to seizures, which is known as eclampsia.

It may mean your baby is born early or at a lower weight than what is normal. In severe cases, pre-eclampsia can be fatal for mother and baby.

Pre-eclampsia can also affect your long-term health. It can double your risk of stroke and also quadruple your risk of high blood pressure later in life. 

A previous pre-eclampsia diagnosis also puts you at an increased risk of heart and circulatory conditions such as a heart attack

Can anyone get pre-eclampsia?

Pre-eclampsia can affect anyone, but it’s more likely to affect you if:

  • you have previously had pre-eclampsia
  • you have an existing condition like high blood pressure, lupus or diabetes.

Pre-eclampsia is also more common amongst women who have one or more risk factors, such as:

  • a body mass index (BMI) of more than 35 at the start of your pregnancy
  • it’s been 10 years since your last pregnancy
  • it’s your first pregnancy
  • you’re over the age of 40
  • you’re expecting twins, triplets or multiple babies
  • you have a family history of pre-eclampsia.

Most of these risk factors you can’t control. However, you can lower your BMI. Use our BMI calculator to work out your BMI and get tips for managing your weight so you can reduce your risk. 

How is pre-eclampsia diagnosed?

Pre-eclampsia is easily diagnosed by your GP or midwife at an antenatal appointment, through a blood pressure check and a urine test. It usually affects women from around the 20 week mark in their pregnancy. 

Your blood pressure and urine should be checked at every antenatal appointment. Your GP or midwife will always be looking for symptoms of pre-eclampsia, especially if you tell them you are experiencing other symptoms too. 

Blood pressure is easily measured using a cuff which is usually placed around your upper arm. The cuff tightens and then releases to measure the pressure of your blood against your artery walls. 

Your urine will be tested after you provide a sample. Your GP or midwife will use a special dipstick that changes colour if it detects protein in your urine. They might ask that you give multiple urine samples so they can see how much protein you’re losing through your urine over a period of time. 

If your GP or midwife diagnoses you with pre-eclampsia, they will refer you to a specialist for further tests.

How is pre-eclampsia treated?

The only way pre-eclampsia can be treated is by giving birth.

If you’re 37 weeks or more into your pregnancy, doctors may decide to send you home or they may induce your labour or perform a caesarean section. They may also keep you in hospital until you deliver your baby without inducement. 

The option they choose will depend on how far along you are and also how serious they think your pre-eclampsia is.

If you have multiple symptoms, or you’re below the 37 week mark, you will need to stay in hospital to be monitored. This is so doctors can keep your blood pressure under control and keep a close eye on your baby. 

Doctors will try to avoid delivering your baby as they want them to be as developed as possible before you give birth. However, in cases where doctors believe you or your baby’s health is at risk, they may deliver your baby before it has reached full-term. This is known as a premature birth, and your baby will likely have to stay in hospital to receive specialist care. 

More information and support

If you want more information on pre-eclampsia or are looking for support, there are lots of organisations and charities that can help.

Want to know more?

Order or download our publications:

Blood pressure

Blood Pressure

Booklet