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Recognizing Preeclampsia Symptoms

Don’t be paranoid about it, but please do educate yourself on the symptoms of preeclampsia. I’ve had SO many readers affected by it, more than any other topic we cover.

Preeclampsia is the most common of the gnarly pregnancy complications — and it can affect both mother and her unborn baby:


(Sometimes called Toxemia by the old-timers)

According to the CDC, preeclampsia affects about 4% of pregnancies (dang! — that’s 1 in 25 pregnancies), and experts are worried about rising rates just in the last few decades. Because preeclampsia can come on very suddenly, you should be familiar with the symptoms.

Should it happen to you, you’ll know what to do!

Most women with preeclampsia will deliver a healthy baby and fully recover. However, some women experience complications, several of which may be life-threatening to mother and/or baby. A woman’s condition can go from mild to severe very quickly.

Anyone who watched Downton Abbey probably remembers the sad loss of Lady Sybil (a.k.a. the nice sister). Luckily, doctors these days know how to spot and treat preeclampsia fairly well. Lesson learned: never trust a doctor in a tux.

The causes of pre-e are still unknown, but the hallmarks are clear: (unusual/unexpected) high blood pressure and protein in your urine (this is why you pee in a cup at every OB visit). If protein is present, it’s a sign that the tiny blood vessels in your kidneys are leaking and spilling into your urine (mind you, it’s normal to have a small amount of protein in your urine).

Preeclampsia Symptoms: The Big Swell

A common telltale symptom with preeclampsia is SwElLiNg — and lots of it, although it doesn’t happen in every single case. Swelling can occur in the face or around your eyes; it can be more-than-slight swelling of your hands and/or excessive or sudden swelling of your feet or ankles (not to be confused with summertime pregnancy elephant-cankles).

This condition is called edema (below). These are our friend Annette’s pre-eclamptic feet right after birth. If you know Annette, you know she’s about 100 lbs soaking wet, so this swelling was very significant.

preeclampsia symptoms
Photo courtesy of Annette Parrent

The retention of fluid can lead to rapid weight gain, which is also one of the reasons your doc checks your weight at every appointment and is concerned with sudden weight gain.

Classic preeclampsia symptoms look and feel something like this:

  • swelling (though not all women with pre-e will swell!)
  • racing pulse
  • mental confusion
  • blurry vision (or other visual weirdness)
  • headaches
  • upper abdominal pain <– this is another hallmark symptom
  • vomiting
  • shortness of breath or chest pain
  • a sense of impending doom (outside of normal feelings of impending doom, heh)

Call your doc right away if you experience ANY of these. Remember, you might not have all the symptoms at once.

*Scary Stuff Warning*

Once preeclampsia is diagnosed, it can usually be managed.

Note that preeclampsia usually develops during pregnancy (typically after 20 weeks), but can also develop during labor or even after birth, so don’t let your guard down after delivery.

Once preeclampsia has begun (in pregnancy, which again, is more common), it cannot be reversed, and becomes a constant game of weighing the health of the baby against the health of mom. The goal is to keep the baby cooking for as long as possible… without jeopardizing mom’s well-being. In some cases, the baby must be delivered immediately, regardless of gestational age, to save the mother or baby’s life.

Bottom line: knowing the basic preeclampsia symptoms and bringing up even a small concern to your doctor is important. You never know what it could be.

Read more about how pre-e is treated here.

**Guys, I can’t underscore this enough… if you don’t feel right, CALL YOUR DOCTOR. If it’s nothing, so be it, but at least you’ll know. I’ve had no fewer than 20 readers (thus far) claim that this email saved their life. (Whether it actually saved their lives is up for debate, but you get what I’m saying.)

Go forth in health!!

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