What is pre-eclampsia?

Pre-eclampsia is a condition that can affect some pregnant women, usually occurring after the 20th week of pregnancy or just after the baby is delivered. It is characterised by high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine, which are usually detected during routine antenatal appointments​.

What to look out for:

Pre-eclampsia rarely happens before the 20th week of pregnancy.

Although less common, the condition can also develop for the first time in the first 4 weeks after birth.

Most people only experience mild symptoms, but it's important to manage the condition in case severe symptoms or complications develop.

The early signs of pre-eclampsia include:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Protein in the urine (proteinuria)

These signs are typically picked up during regular antenatal checks, as they might not be noticeable without testing. As the condition progresses, additional symptoms may develop, such as:

  • Severe headaches
  • Vision problems (e.g. blurring or flashing lights)
  • Pain just below the ribs
  • Vomiting
  • Sudden swelling of the face, hands or feet

Although most cases of pre-eclampsia cause no problems and improve soon after the baby is delivered, there's a risk of serious complications that can affect both you and your baby. 

If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to call your maternity unit immediately for advice straight away. 

What causes pre-eclampsia?

The exact cause of pre-eclampsia isn't fully understood, but it is thought to be caused by the placenta not developing properly because of a problem with the blood vessels supplying it. Several factors can increase the risk of developing pre-eclampsia, including:

  • You're pregnant for the first time
  • Your last pregnancy was over 10 years ago
  • You're 40 years old or over
  • You have a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or more
  • You're pregnant with more than one baby
  • You have a pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or kidney disease
  • You have an autoimmune disorder

If you have 2 or more of these together, your chances of developing pre-eclampsia are higher.

If you're thought to be at a high risk of developing pre-eclampsia, you may be advised to take a 75 to 150mg daily dose of aspirin from the 12th week of pregnancy until your baby is born.

How pre-eclampsia is diagnosed and monitored

Pre-eclampsia is usually diagnosed during routine antenatal appointments through regular blood pressure checks and urine tests.

If you're diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, you should be referred for an assessment by a specialist, usually in hospital. 

You may be able to return home afterwards and attend regular (possibly daily) follow-up appointments.

You may be admitted to hospital for monitoring and treatment if there are any concerns for you or your baby.

Baby Movements

Monitoring your baby’s movements is an important part of keeping track of their wellbeing, especially if you have pre-eclampsia or other pregnancy condition. If you think your baby’s movements have slowed down or stopped, contact your maternity unit immediately. Midwives and doctors are there to help you - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


The only way to cure pre-eclampsia is to deliver the baby, so you'll usually be monitored regularly until it's possible for your baby to be delivered. This will normally be at around 37 to 38 weeks of pregnancy, but it may be earlier in more severe cases. Until then, you may be given medications to lower your blood pressure.

Post-Delivery Care

Although pre-eclampsia usually improves soon after your baby is born, complications can sometimes develop a few days later. You may need to stay in hospital after the birth so you can be monitored.

Babies born prematurely due to pre-eclampsia may need special care in a neonatal intensive care unit​.

Once it's safe to do so, you'll be able to take your baby home.

You'll usually need to have your blood pressure checked regularly after leaving hospital, and you may need to continue taking medicine to lower your blood pressure for several weeks.

More Resources

Action on Pre-eclampsia

NHS website

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