Preeclampsia is a dangerous pregnancy-related condition that causes high blood pressure and protein in the urine. Women can also experience preeclampsia after birth.

Preeclampsia remains a leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths. It is a life threatening disorder. Therefore, it is essential to seek immediate care for symptoms and go to the emergency room if it is not possible to get prompt care from a doctor.

Although pregnancy-related preeclampsia typically occurs after 20 weeks of gestation, symptoms can continue even after a woman has given birth. It is also possible for preeclampsia to appear for the first time after delivery.

In this article, we look at the symptoms and warning signs of preeclampsia, as well as when to seek help and more.

a woman holding a newborn with a headache due to preeclampsia after birthShare on Pinterest
A person with preeclampsia after birth may experience a severe headache that does not go away with treatment.

Various studies suggest that 0.3–28% of women experience high blood pressure after giving birth.

Postpartum preeclampsia, which occurs after the birth, can be life threatening. It may lead to eclampsia, a complication that can involve seizures, stroke, organ damage, and even death.

However, with proper management, preeclampsia does not have to endanger a person’s life or well-being. For this reason, it is very important to monitor symptoms and seek prompt medical care.

Postpartum preeclampsia typically occurs within the first 7 days after delivery. However, a woman can still be at risk for 6 weeks after delivery.

High blood pressure sometimes causes no symptoms at all.

As a result, the healthcare team will monitor the woman’s blood pressure in the hospital following delivery.

Blood pressure higher than 140/90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) can signal preeclampsia. Other symptoms may include:

  • changes in vision, such as seeing spots
  • a severe headache that does not go away with massage, exercise, water, or other headache management strategies
  • swollen face, hands, or feet
  • nausea or stomach pain
  • shortness of breath

In some women, preeclampsia is mild, but in others, it can be life threatening. Women often cannot tell how severe their case is based on the symptoms alone, so it is important to seek prompt medical care.

If the following symptoms occur, go to the emergency room or call 911:

  • blood pressure higher than 160/110 mm Hg
  • seizures
  • seeing spots
  • trouble breathing
  • shortness of breath

Call a healthcare provider right away for:

  • a severe headache
  • changes in vision, such as blurry vision or seeing flashing lights
  • abdominal pain
  • vomiting
  • nausea
  • swelling of the hands and face

If the doctor does not answer or does not take the symptoms seriously, go to the emergency room or call 911. Ensure that the emergency department knows that the woman seeking care recently gave birth.

Anyone can develop preeclampsia during or after pregnancy. However, some women have a higher risk than others.

While doctors have established a clear list of risk factors for preeclampsia during pregnancy, research has not clearly determined which specific factors put a woman at risk for high blood pressure after birth.

Some risk factors for preeclampsia during pregnancy include:

  • kidney disease before or during pregnancy
  • a history of high blood pressure
  • preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy
  • having overweight or obesity
  • being over the age of 40 years
  • a family history of preeclampsia
  • having had more than one pregnancy

One of the most dangerous complications of postpartum preeclampsia is HELLP syndrome.

HELLP stands for:

  • hemolysis, which is the destruction of red blood cells
  • elevated liver enzymes, which may cause liver failure and other complications
  • low platelet count, which can lead to bleeding and hemorrhage

High blood pressure can also damage the heart and blood vessels, increasing the risk of stroke, heart attack, and other types of cardiovascular disease.

Doctors diagnose preeclampsia by taking blood pressure measurements and a urine sample.

If a woman has high blood pressure and protein in her urine, she may have preeclampsia.

However, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ guidelines, issues with the kidneys and liver may occur without levels of protein passing through the urine.

They note that doctors should diagnose preeclampsia if there is persistent high blood pressure and other associated symptoms, including protein in the urine, decreased blood platelets, or fluid in the lungs. If seizures occur, the diagnosis becomes eclampsia.

Doctors treat preeclampsia with medication to lower blood pressure. They may also prescribe medication to reduce the risk of seizures.

For example, they might advise a woman to take magnesium sulfate before delivery. This drug can help reduce the chance of seizures. The woman should continue to take magnesium sulfate for 24 hours after delivery.

If a woman is experiencing severe hypertension, a doctor may prescribe:

  • Beta-blockers: These can help reduce the heart rate.
  • Vasodilators: These can help open blood vessels.
  • Diuretics: These can help get rid of excess fluid.

If the symptoms are very severe, the woman might need to stay in the hospital for monitoring.

Women who are breastfeeding should ask about continuing to do so while taking preeclampsia drugs.

It is usually safe to continue breastfeeding. However, the stress of a life threatening diagnosis and the disruptions in breastfeeding that treatment may require can make it difficult.

Most women recover from preeclampsia if they get early treatment. However, high blood pressure can damage blood vessels and even the heart, so it is important to ask a doctor about follow-up care. It may sometimes be necessary for women to consult with a cardiologist.

Preeclampsia increases the risk of having preeclampsia again with the next pregnancy, so a woman should tell her healthcare team about any previous pregnancy complications.

Preeclampsia is a serious but treatable condition.

With prompt medical care and a supportive treatment team, recovery is possible.

It is important that women seek emergency medical attention quickly if they experience any symptoms after delivery, such as seizures, difficulty breathing, changes in vision, and a blood pressure measurement of 160/110 mm Hg or higher.