Preeclampsia is one of the most common pregnancy complications. Doctors counsel expectant parents to watch for symptoms, because preeclampsia can be serious or even life-threatening if it progresses into eclampsia. In most cases, giving birth resolves preeclampsia, but postpartum preeclampsia is real, and can be dangerous if you don’t know how to spot it.
What Is Preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia is a condition characterized by high blood pressure, swelling (especially in the feet, hands, and face), and protein in the urine. It affects approximately 5% of pregnancies. You probably need a doctor to tell you your blood pressure and urine protein content, but you can spot these warning signs that you may be developing preeclampsia:
- Blurry vision or “floaters”
- Headaches, especially severe headaches or headaches that don’t respond to over-the-counter medication
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid weight gain
- Fluid retention (swollen limbs, extremities, or face)
- Upper abdominal pain, usually a sharp pain under the ribs on the right side
- Decreased urination
Some people are at higher risk than others of developing preeclampsia. Factors like diabetes, obesity, pregnancy with multiples, or history of high blood pressure can increase your chances of preeclampsia.
Generally speaking, doctors have long agreed that “the cure for preeclampsia is delivery.” Expectant moms with preeclampsia are often prescribed rest, and may take medication to manage their blood pressure, but the toll of pregnancy on your body means giving birth is the biggest piece of the puzzle.
Preeclampsia is much more common in pregnancy than postpartum, but postpartum preeclampsia may be even more dangerous simply because people may not expect it or recognize the signs. You can develop postpartum preeclampsia even if you didn’t have preeclampsia, or even high blood pressure, during your pregnancy.
Most of the time, postpartum preeclampsia shows up within 48 hours of delivery. It can present anytime up to around 6 weeks postpartum, though, so listen to your body. If something feels wrong, call your doctor. You can also ask your doctor about scheduling a 1-week postpartum follow-up appointment, instead of only the 6-week postpartum appointment that’s standard in many OBGYN practices.
What Should I Do If I Have Postpartum Preeclampsia?
If you’re noticing signs of preeclampsia, call your doctor right away. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, you should call 911 or ask someone to take you to an emergency room for treatment:
- Blood pressure at or over 160/110
- Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
- Seeing spots
These are signs your condition is progressing into eclampsia, which requires immediate treatment. Preeclampsia and eclampsia can cause organ damage or coma, so getting help is critical.
The good news is that medication, including blood pressure medication, can treat postpartum preeclampsia effectively. If you’re nursing, talk to your medical team about medication. Your doctors can advise you whether there are medications you can take that are safe while breastfeeding, or if you need to switch to formula temporarily until your preeclampsia is under control. Taking care of your health is top priority, but depending on your case, your medical team may be able to figure out a treatment plan that lets you continue to nurse during treatment, if that’s important to you.
After treating preeclampsia, it’s smart to set up and keep appointments with your OBGYN and physician. You may still deal with high blood pressure or hypertension for months or years after postpartum preeclampsia, so you can take charge of your health by understanding the balance of medication or lifestyle habits that keep your blood pressure under control.