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Understanding the signs and symptoms of pre-eclampsia

Dr Christine Catling

Dr Christine Catling

Dr Christine Catling, a midwife for over 25 years, is the Director of Midwifery Studies at UTS. She believes research, innovation and good quality midwifery are pivotal to the well-being of mothers and young families. Christine has extensive experience in antenatal education, policy development and research, and has published on workforce issues, homebirth, vaginal birth...
Created on Oct 15, 2023 · 2 mins read

In Australia, mild pre-eclampsia affects around 5-10% of pregnant women, and severe pre-eclampsia affects around 1-2% and is the cause of around 5-10% of all preterm births. Pre-eclampsia occurs only during pregnancy and can cause the mother to suffer from high blood pressure, kidney dysfunction which causes the leaking of protein into the urine, swelling (oedema), dizziness, headaches and vision problems. If left untreated it can lead to other serious problems such as convulsions, kidney failure, liver failure, blood clotting and can be life-threatening for both the mother and the baby.

What causes pre-eclampsia?


The causes of pre-eclampsia are still not fully known however it is believed genetics play a part, as does the placenta. It is also more common in first-time mothers.

Who is most at risk of pre-eclampsia?


As more research into the condition is required, it is believed the following factors can put you at higher risk of the disorder:

  • If this is your first pregnancy
  • Family history of pre-eclampsia – if your mother or sister had it there is a higher chance you may too
  • If you suffered from high blood pressure before you fell pregnant
  • If you have diabetes
  • If you are having twins or multiples

How does pre-eclampsia affect my baby?


Pre-eclampsia (or complications associated with it) are the cause of around 5-10% of all preterm births in Australia. If a mother has pre-eclampsia it can affect the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to the baby, which in some cases may affect its growth, and in some cases requiring premature birth.


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What are the symptoms of pre-eclampsia?


Pre-eclampsia can often be present with no obvious symptoms, however high blood pressure and the presence of proteinuria (protein) in your urine, which your doctor will test for early in your pregnancy.

It typically develops in the latter half of the pregnancy and symptoms can include:

  • Swelling (oedema) – typically if this comes on suddenly or changes severely
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Vision problems
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting

While many of these symptoms can also be common pregnancy symptoms if you experience all of these or sudden onset or change in any of them you should call your doctor immediately.

How is pre-eclampsia diagnosed and treated?


If pre-eclampsia is suspected, your doctor will likely order a series of blood tests to test for liver function, kidney function and platelet count. They will also check your baby for any foetal growth restriction via ultrasound.

If you are then diagnosed, depending on the severity, you will most likely be put on blood pressure medication, possibly anticonvulsant medication and need to undergo more frequent antenatal testing including blood pressure checks and urine tests.


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