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Learning About Pre-Eclampsia After Childbirth

What is pre-eclampsia?

A woman with pre-eclampsia has blood pressure that is higher than usual. She may also have other serious symptoms.

Pre-eclampsia can be dangerous. When it is severe, it can cause seizures (eclampsia) or liver or kidney damage. When the liver is affected, some women get HELLP syndrome, a blood-clotting and bleeding problem. HELLP can come on quickly and can be deadly. This is why your doctor checks you and your baby often.

Pre-eclampsia usually occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Most often, it starts near the end of pregnancy and goes away after childbirth. But symptoms may last a few weeks or more and can get worse after delivery. Rarely, symptoms of pre-eclampsia don't show up until days or even weeks after childbirth.

What are the symptoms?

Mild pre-eclampsia usually doesn't cause symptoms. But pre-eclampsia can cause rapid weight gain and sudden swelling of the hands and face.

Severe pre-eclampsia does cause symptoms. It can cause a very bad headache and trouble seeing and breathing. It also can cause belly pain. You may also urinate less than usual.

If you have new pre-eclampsia symptoms after you go home from the hospital, call your doctor or nurse call line right away.

What can you expect after you have had pre-eclampsia?

In the hospital

After the baby and the placenta are delivered, pre-eclampsia usually starts to improve. Most women get better in the first few days after childbirth.

After having pre-eclampsia, you still have a risk of seizures for a day or more after childbirth. (Very rarely, seizures happen later on.) So your doctor may have you take magnesium sulfate for a day or more to prevent seizures. You may also take medicine to lower your blood pressure.

When you go home

Your blood pressure will most likely return to normal a few days after delivery. Your doctor will want to check your blood pressure sometime in the first week after you leave the hospital.

Some women still have high blood pressure 6 weeks after childbirth. But most return to normal levels over the long term.

  • Take and record your blood pressure at home if your doctor tells you to.
    • Learn the importance of the two measures of blood pressure (such as 120 over 80, or 120/80). The first number is the systolic pressure. This is the force of blood on the artery walls as the heart pumps. The second number is the diastolic pressure. This is the force of blood on the artery walls between heartbeats, when the heart is at rest. You have a choice of monitors to use.
      • Manual monitor: You pump up the cuff and use a stethoscope to listen for your pulse.
      • Electronic monitor: The cuff inflates, and a gauge shows your pulse rate.
    • To take your blood pressure:
      • Ask your doctor to check your blood pressure monitor to be sure that it is accurate and that the cuff fits you. Also ask your doctor to watch you use it, to make sure that you are using it right.
      • You should not eat, use tobacco products, or use medicine known to raise blood pressure (such as some nasal decongestant sprays) before you take your blood pressure.
      • Avoid taking your blood pressure if you have just exercised. Also avoid taking it if you are nervous or upset. Rest at least 15 minutes before you take your blood pressure.
  • Be safe with medicines. If you take medicine, take it exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor or nurse call line if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Do not smoke. Quitting smoking will help improve your baby's growth and health. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Eat a balanced and healthy diet that has lots of fruits and vegetables.

Long-term health

After you have had pre-eclampsia, you have a higher-than-average risk of heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. This may be because the same things that cause pre-eclampsia also cause heart and kidney disease.

To protect your health, work with your doctor on living a heart-healthy lifestyle and getting the checkups you need. Your doctor may also want you to check your blood pressure at home.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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