Moms-to-be and their families have certainly heard of the risks and dangers of pre-eclampsia. In fact, it’s possible that more people have heard of the syndrome than ever before, with celebrities like Kim Kardashian famously suffering from pre-eclampsia during pregnancy.
The media coverage around pre-eclampsia has been generous, but separating the fact from rumor can be difficult. All the dramatization might still leave expectant mothers wondering what pre-eclampsia is, and whether or not they should be worried. The reality of the syndrome is a little complex, but if you find yourself at high-risk for pre-eclampsia there are a few things you should know.
What is Pre-Eclampsia?
Pre-eclampsia is a syndrome unique to pregnancy. Its most telltale symptoms are abnormally high blood pressure, hand and face swelling, and excessive protein in the urine. Symptoms vary with severity, with more extreme cases leading to more significant issues such as kidney and liver dysfunction. Pre-eclampsia generally increases the overall risk of a pregnancy, and should be addressed as soon as possible.
What Causes Pre-Eclampsia?
A developing baby contains proteins and DNA that are derived from the father and the mother. A mother’s immune system recognizes that these proteins from the father are different from the proteins and DNA naturally produced by the mother.
Because most foreign proteins are usually threats like viruses and infections, the mother’s immune system would normally react to the unfamiliar proteins and DNA the same way it might fight off a cold. To avoid this, a pregnant mother’s immune system develops an amazing normal tolerance to the “foreign” proteins and DNA in her baby.
Pre-eclampsia involves that normal immune tolerance breaking down, causing a “toxic” reaction. This is also why pre-eclampsia used to be referred to as “toxemia of pregnancy.”
Can It Be Prevented?
Unfortunately, there is no real way to prevent pre-eclampsia and the only real cure is delivery of the baby. However, a high risk of pre-eclampsia is not necessarily a reason to panic. Years of research have found that even patients at very high risk for pre-eclampsia can delay the onset and severity of the syndrome by taking certain medications and supplements from about 12 weeks of pregnancy until delivery.
These supplements include low-dose “baby” aspirin (like Bayer), calcium supplements (like TUMS EX), and DHA or omega 3 fatty acids (often found in prenatal vitamins).
The exact dose and regimen can vary, so be sure to ask your doctor for instructions if these medications have been recommended to you.
Am I At Risk?
While certain risk factors for pre-eclampsia do exist, (obesity, previous hypertension, and your first pregnancy being a few) only your doctor can determine if you are at high risk.
If you’re concerned about the possibility of pre-eclampsia, then share your concerns with your doctor as soon as possible. Consultation with a high-risk specialist or maternal-fetal medicine doctor may be recommended. If you are suspected to have pre-eclampsia, certain tests can be performed to determine you and your baby’s status and potentially put your mind at ease or recommend interventions, if needed.
Always speak with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns. No pregnancy is perfect, but I hope your pregnancy is the very best it can be.
Be safe, be well and have fun!
David L. Berry, M.D.
Founder and Staff Physician
Austin Perinatal Associates