Preeclampsia, also known as “toxaemia of pregnancy”, is a serious blood pressure disorder that can occur during pregnancy or shortly after childbirth. It is a leading cause of death worldwide for women, fetuses and newborns, as it is responsible for over 70 OOO maternal deaths and 500 000 fetal deaths every year and affects approximately 5% to 7% of all pregnancies1. Preeclampsia is characterized by elevated blood pressure and high protein levels in the urine. The condition may be associated with severe short and long-term effects for both mother and baby2.
The first symptoms of preeclampsia usually become apparent mid-pregnancy, after the 24th week of pregnancy, and rarely before the 20th week. Although less common, the mother may develop preeclampsia for the first time in the weeks immediately after birth. Most pregnant women with the condition only experience mild symptoms and feel no discomfort at the beginning, but severe complications may develop without early diagnosis and clinical management. During the first trimester prenatal appointments, a healthcare professional checks the mother for high blood pressure1and protein in the urine2, which are some of the early signs of preeclampsia. These clinical findings in combination with some risk factors, like having an existing medical problem or family history of the condition, help the healthcare professional identify whether the expecting mother has an increased risk developing preeclampsia. The main sign of preeclampsia in the fetus is slow growth, as the condition prevents the fetus from being adequately nourished and supplied with oxygen due to the poor blood supply through the placenta to the baby2. If the condition is not identified from an early stage and progresses, the expecting mother may develop severe headaches or vision problems like sensations of flashing lights, light sensitivity, or blurry vision or spots. Additional symptoms include severe heartburn, nausea or vomiting, rapid and excessive weight gain, pain just below the ribs, sudden or severe swelling of the feet, ankles, face and hands (edema). It is crucial for every pregnant woman to be informed about these symptoms and get medical advice immediately if they notice any of them. Without prompt treatment, preeclampsia may lead to rare, yet life-threatening complications for the mother, including organ damage and death. Preeclampsia is also associated with high risk of the baby being born too small and with a low birth weight.
Causes and Risk Factors
Despite intensive research over the last decades, the exact cause of preeclampsia isn't fully understood; however, it is thought to be caused by the placenta not developing properly2. Many factors can increase the risk of developing preeclampsia, including having a pre-existing medical problem such as diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure or autoimmune conditions like lupus or antiphospholipid syndrome. Also, if a woman had preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy, there is approximately a 16% chance of developing the condition again in later pregnancies. Some factors cumulatively increase a woman’s chances of developing preeclampsia. These include being pregnant for the first time, if it has been at least 10 years since last pregnancy, family history of the condition (mother or sister), whether a woman is over 40, if a woman was obese at the start of her pregnancy with body mass index (BMI) of 35 or more, or if having a multiple pregnancy.
Newest studies for Diagnosis
Apart from the first trimester routine checks which are performed between the 11th and 14th week of pregnancy to estimate the risk for preeclampsia, newer studies show that determining the ratio of two placental proteins (sFlt-1/PlGF) with a blood test between the 20th and 34th week can predict the onset of preeclampsia about four weeks in advance4,5. Based on this information, if preeclampsia is suspected, the healthcare professional can schedule the frequency of prenatal appointments accordingly, for more careful monitoring and early diagnosis. Monitoring may include keeping track of the fetus’s movements by doing a daily kick count, measuring the blood pressure at home and scheduling weekly prenatal check visits to check the fetus growth.
If preeclampsia is confirmed, frequent monitoring by a healthcare professional is essential. Preeclampsia can only be cured by delivering the baby and the placenta2. The aim of treatment is to prolong pregnancy and avoid a premature birth, as long as it is safe for both the mother and the baby. If needed, staying in the hospital until the baby can be delivered will be recommended for careful monitoring and early action. Although preeclampsia usually improves soon after the baby is born, complications can sometimes develop a few days later. If preeclampsia is severe, it may cause long-term health consequences for the mother and her baby. On average, 1 in 3 women with severe preeclampsiadevelops chronic high blood pressure years after their pregnancy, and frequently suffers from cardiovascular diseases (CVD) and blood clotting disorders1, 2. As babies may be born prematurely, they may experience breathing difficulties caused by undeveloped lungs2. To prevent this from happening, healthcare professionals may give injections of a corticosteroid medicine to the pregnant women to speed up the development of the fetus’ lungs, brain, and kidneys and surfactant production. In newborns with underdeveloped lungs and breathing difficulties, treatment ― surfactant replacement therapy, breathing support from a ventilator or other supportive cures ― should begin immediately. Most babies who show signs of a breathing disorder are quickly moved to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to receive constant treatment.
Presently, there is no single diagnostic test that can accurately predict if a woman will develop preeclampsia during pregnancy or right after childbirth. For this reason, raising awareness to prevent preeclampsia is the most powerful tool for the successful, early recognition and clinical management of the condition3. This involves identifying risk factors for preeclampsia, informing women of the signs and symptoms, and stressing the importance of contacting a healthcare professional as soon as possible. It is crucial for pregnant women to attend all their prenatal appointments, to monitor their blood pressure at every prenatal check or at home, and to be aware of specific warning signals such as headaches, impaired vision or rapid weight gain, fluid retention or restlessness. Maintaining a healthy eating lifestyle, staying physically active and avoiding stress are vitally important for the prevention and good management of preeclampsia.
NIPD Genetics clinical laboratories, which are part of GESY, offer several routine checks which may be performed before or during the pregnancy.NIPD Genetics clinical laboratories enable easy access, and the experienced personnel is trained to respond to every need.To learn more please visitwww.nipdlabs.com.cy
The content is intended only for educational purposes and should not be perceived as medical advice.
Compiled using information from:
-European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants (EFCNI). [https://www.efcni.org/activities/campaigns/world-preeclampsia-day/]
-NIHR, Placental growth factor testing can speed up diagnosis of pre-eclampsia. [https://evidence.nihr.ac.uk/alert/placental-growth-factor-testing-can-speed-up-diagnosis-of-pre-eclampsia/]
Rana S, Lemoine E, Granger JP, Karumanchi SA. Preeclampsia: Pathophysiology, Challenges, and Perspectives. Circ Res. 2019 Mar 29;124(7):1094-1112. doi: 10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.118.313276. Erratum in: Circ Res. 2020 Jan 3;126(1):e8. PMID: 30920918.
Bokslag A, van Weissenbruch M, Mol BW, de Groot CJ. Preeclampsia; short and long-term consequences for mother and neonate. Early Hum Dev. 2016 Nov;102:47-50. doi: 10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2016.09.007. Epub 2016 Sep 20. PMID: 27659865.
Hypertension in pregnancy. Report of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Task Force on Hypertension in Pregnancy. Obstet Gynecol. 2013 Nov;122(5):1122-1131. doi: 10.1097/01.AOG.0000437382.03963.88. PMID: 24150027.
European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants (EFCNI). [https://www.efcni.org/activities/campaigns/world-preeclampsia-day/]
Chau, K., Hennessy, A. & Makris, A. Placental growth factor and pre-eclampsia. J Hum Hypertens 31, 782–786 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/jhh.2017.61
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