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Women's health

Postpartum Preeclampsia: Recognizing and Managing a Serious Complication

Postpartum preeclampsia is a rare, but dangerous complication that can happen after pregnancy. Learn the signs of what to look for and how to protect yourself.

Postpartum Preeclampsia: Recognizing and Managing a Serious Complication

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There’s so much going on after your baby is born. You have to keep track of diaper changes and feeding schedules, and making sure you sleep when you can. It’s hard to focus on your health when you are caring for a newborn.

But conditions like postpartum preeclampsia can sneak up on you and can potentially be life-threatening.

Affecting over 27 percent of people in the United States, this condition happens most often in the first seven to 10 days after childbirth. We asked Felice Gersh, MD, to help us understand the warning signs of postpartum preeclampsia to look out for.

What is postpartum preeclampsia?

“Preeclampsia is a complex medical condition,” says Dr. Gersh, something that can happen after pregnancy and involves the blood vessels, kidneys, liver, and other organs. “It can happen anytime during the last part of pregnancy, including after delivery up to about six weeks postpartum,” explains Dr. Gersh. Untreated, it can cause stroke, seizures, and other complications.

Signs or symptoms of postpartum preeclampsia can include:

  • High blood pressure of 140/90 mm Hg or greater
  • Protein in the urine
  • Not urinating as much as usual
  • Severe headache that doesn’t go away with pain relievers
  • Blurred vision, light sensitivity, or vision loss
  • Pain in your right upper abdomen, under the ribs
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Feeling short of breath

You also might have weight gain due to retaining water, with swelling in your arms, hands, legs, feet and face, according to Dr. Gersh. Any of these symptoms need to be reported to your healthcare provider immediately.

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Who is at risk for postpartum preeclampsia?

Doctors aren’t sure why some people have postpartum preeclampsia. Most people have it during pregnancy. But some can develop it after giving birth, and up to six weeks later.

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Some factors can increase your chances of having postpartum preeclampsia. “One of the greatest risk factors is the age at which pregnancy occurs,” explains Dr. Gersh, stating pregnancy at a young age or after age 35 has a higher risk of developing postpartum preeclampsia.

Dr. Gersh also says certain health conditions you had before pregnancy such as diabetes, high blood pressure, autoimmune conditions, and being pregnant with twins or multiples can also be risk factors for postpartum preeclampsia.

How is postpartum preeclampsia treated?

Diagnosing postpartum preeclampsia involves checking your blood pressure, and testing your blood and urine to see how well your liver and kidneys are working.

The condition can be life-threatening, and it’s important to begin treatment as soon as possible to prevent seizures and organ damage. Postpartum preeclampsia can progress to eclampsia, which involves seizures and liver failure, with a condition called HELLP syndrome, adds Dr. Gersh.

“Because no concerns exist for the baby, as this is post-delivery, the priority is the health of the new mother,” says Dr. Gersh. Treatment involves medication to lower your blood pressure. You may be hospitalized and given magnesium sulfate through an IV in your arm to prevent seizures.

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According to Dr. Gersh, this is a particularly dangerous time for blood clots to form in your body as you may be placed on bed rest. Your healthcare team might give you blood thinners to prevent this from happening.

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Why is follow-up care important?

“It is essential for all who develop postpartum preeclampsia to be closely followed. The serious consequences of this condition must not be underestimated. Additionally, it is now recognized that those who have this pregnancy complication have a substantial lifetime risk for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases,” explains Dr. Gersh.

Pay attention to new symptoms such as increased blood pressure, vision changes, and severe headaches that don’t go away with pain relievers. Your healthcare provider will want you to monitor your blood pressure at home and call if it’s over 140/90.

It can be difficult to pay attention to your body when you’re busy with a new baby. But if you notice anything feels off or not right, call your healthcare provider as soon as possible so you can get the help you need.

Experts

  • Felice Gersh, MD, OB-GYN and founder of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine in California

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