Most pregnant women have heard of preeclampsia as a complication of pregnancy whose hallmark is high blood pressure. And most women have also been told by their obstetricians and midwives that this disease becomes more common as a woman gets closer to her due date.
What isn’t as commonly known, however, is that sometimes preeclampsia isn’t diagnosed until after a woman gives birth. This is important because it can still be a life-threatening condition for mom, and she needs to know what to look out for so she can report any concerning warning signs to her healthcare team.
Postpartum preeclampsia is the development of preeclampsia after giving birth. The criteria to diagnose it are the same as for preeclampsia in pregnancy: high blood pressure, symptoms (headache, pain in the area of the liver, vision changes), and certain changes in lab tests including protein in the urine or abnormal liver or kidney tests.
For some women who develop postpartum preeclampsia, no prior issues with high blood pressure occurred in their pregnancy. For others, they may have had high blood pressure in pregnancy but never actually met the criteria to officially diagnose preeclampsia.
Either way, it is a serious diagnosis. Left untreated, it can lead to stroke, eclampsia (seizures), brain swelling, or fluid collections in the lungs – and all of these have the potential to be fatal or lead to life-long disability.
This is why all women should be counseled about the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia before they are discharged from the hospital after giving birth. One excellent resource that helps women know what to look out for is this POST-BIRTH handout from the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN) organization.
Increasing awareness about postpartum preeclampsia is crucial since studies have shown that most women who suffered a stroke or eclampsia actually had symptoms for hours or days before they sought care. This was critical time when they could have been treated and these severe complications avoided.
Treatment of postpartum preeclampsia usually includes being admitted to the hospital so the mother can be closely watched. Medicine is given to help control blood pressure, and magnesium sulfate is an intravenous medicine that is often given to help prevent seizures from occurring. A woman will often stay in the hospital until her blood pressure has stabilized and her symptoms and labs have normalized.
If you have given birth, be sure to print out the handout mentioned here so you can know what signs to look out for postpartum preeclampsia. Don’t ever hesitate to call your doctor or midwife if any of these occur so you can be taken care of quickly – so that you can then be healthy to take care of your baby.
- Postpartum preeclampsia is the development of preeclampsia after giving birth.
- The criteria to diagnose it are the same as for preeclampsia in pregnancy.
- Left untreated, it can lead to life-long disability or be fatal.