Everything you need to know about pre-eclampsia

Are you at risk of developing pre-eclampsia during pregnancy? We explain the symptoms and the risk factors. By Xanet van Vuuren


Pre-eclampsia occurs in about 7–10% of all pregnancies, and is one of the six most common causes of maternal deaths in South Africa. However, if caught in time, pre-eclampsia can be managed and treated successfully, and both the mom and baby will survive.

ALSO SEE: High blood pressure in pregnancy – what you need to know

What is pre-eclampsia?

Obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Judith Carter explains that pre-eclampsia is a serious blood pressure disorder that develops in pregnant women after the 20th week of pregnancy.

Signs and symptoms to look out for

If a pregnant woman has a severe headache and pain in the upper right part of her abdomen, her blood pressure and urine should be tested to determine if she has pre-eclampsia. If her blood pressure and urine are normal, chances are that she’s merely experiencing common pregnancy-related symptoms, but if she has high blood pressure and protein is found in her urine, she may have pre-eclampsia.

What causes pre-eclampsia?

Obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Patricia Okeyo says that although they aren’t completely sure what causes pre-eclampsia, they do know that the condition is related to the placenta.

Who is at risk?

Any pregnant woman can develop this condition, but women who have a history of pre-eclampsia or existing high blood pressure may have a higher risk of developing pregnancy hypertension.

Other risk factors include:

  • First-time pregnancy
  • Any other medical problems or conditions that the mom may have, for example, autoimmune diseases
  • If you’re carrying a new partner’s baby, even if you’ve had other children
  • A family history of pre-eclampsia or chronic high blood pressure
  • A chromosomal abnormality in your baby
  • A multiple pregnancy
  • Chronic renal disease or diabetes in the mother
  • Very young mothers and older mothers have a higher risk of developing pre-eclampsia
  • A large placenta

Many of the symptoms associated with pre-eclampsia can be normal pregnancy-related symptoms, which makes it vital for women to make an appointment with their doctor if they experience any of the following:

  • A severe and unrelenting headache
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Dizziness and/or blurred vision
  • Pain in the upper right part of the abdomen.
  • Swelling of the legs, hands and face

“If pre-eclampsia isn’t detected and treated in time, women may start having fits, called eclampsia, which can be very dangerous,” explains Dr Carter. “If women experience any of the above-mentioned symptoms, they need to be examined to check that their blood pressure is normal and that no protein is present in their urine.”


Although pre-eclampsia can’t be cured, the symptoms can be treated successfully, depending on the severity of the disease. “With mild cases of pre-eclampsia, you can try to control the condition with medication, but if the wellbeing of the baby is compromised as a result of the pre-eclampsia, there’s a possibility that the baby will have to be delivered earlier than planned,” explains Dr Okeyo.

“Treatment depends on how far along a woman’s pregnancy is and how soon the baby can be delivered. If the mom is between 36 and 37 weeks pregnant, the baby will be delivered immediately, otherwise it will place too big a risk on both their lives.” At this stage, the baby is already quite mature and will survive,” explains Dr Carter. “However, if the mom develops pre-eclampsia between 26 and 28 weeks of pregnancy, doctors will try to delay delivery for as long as possible to allow baby to grow,” she adds. It’s important that the mother’s condition is monitored constantly. “If, at any stage, her clinical condition deteriorates or the baby stops growing or moving, it’s best to deliver the baby as soon as possible.”

ALSO SEE: Your guide to antenatal checks

Dr Okeyo urges women to have their antenatal checks done regularly, as pre-eclampsia can be fatal to both
mom and baby if it isn’t treated in time.
Dr Carter concludes that it’s important to remember that when treating pre-eclampsia, you aren’t curing the condition, but bringing down the mom’s blood pressure, which will allow more time for the baby to mature. Once baby has been delivered, you’ll start to recover and your blood pressure will return to normal.

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