What Is Postpartum Preeclampsia?

Postpartum preeclampsia is a rare condition that can develop after childbirth. The version of preeclampsia that appears after delivery has the same symptoms as during pregnancy. The difference between the two is when the symptoms appear.

Both preeclampsia and postpartum preeclampsia can be life threatening and require close monitoring by a healthcare provider. People with postpartum preeclampsia commonly develop high blood pressure, high levels of protein in their urine, and swelling of the hands and feet.

If untreated, the condition can cause strokes, seizures, and other complications. These complications can be prevented with treatment and close monitoring.

This article discusses the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, risk factors, and prognosis for people with postpartum preeclampsia.

tired new mother holding her baby

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Symptoms of Postpartum Preeclampsia

The signs and symptoms of postpartum preeclampsia can be difficult to detect if you aren’t looking for them. Many people may be distracted by caring for a newborn and healing from childbirth, which can cause symptoms to go unnoticed.

In most people who develop postpartum preeclampsia, the symptoms start within 48 hours after childbirth. In some cases, symptoms could develop six to twelve weeks after delivery.

The symptoms of postpartum preeclampsia include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Swelling of face, hands, or feet
  • High levels of protein in your urine
  • Persistent, severe headache
  • Abdominal pain, just below your ribs
  • Changes in vision

If you experience any of the symptoms of postpartum preeclampsia, contact your healthcare provider immediately or seek medical attention.

Not Everyone With Postpartum Preeclampsia Experiences Symptoms

Some people won’t experience or notice the symptoms of preeclampsia, so be sure to attend follow-up appointments and contact your team regularly if you have questions or concerns.

Causes and Risk Factors

Some known risk factors for developing postpartum preeclampsia include:

Diagnosis

Your healthcare provider will use physical assessments, urine tests, and blood tests to help diagnose this condition. Criteria for diagnosing postpartum preeclampsia include:

  • New high blood pressure or hypertension (blood pressure of greater than 140/90 mmHg on more than one occasion)
  • Presence of protein in your urine
  • Elevated renal labs
  • Fluid buildup around the lungs
  • Elevated liver enzymes
  • Swelling in hands, feet, or face
  • Persistent headache

Treatment

Postpartum preeclampsia is easily treated with medications and close monitoring. Your doctor will help guide your exact treatment plan. Often treatment will include some or all of the following:

  • Blood pressure medications (anti-hypertensives) may be used to help lower your blood pressure and maintain healthy levels.
  • Blood thinners (anticoagulants) may be recommended to lower the risk of blood clots.
  • Anti-seizure medicine (anti-epileptics) may be recommended since seizures are a common risk with preeclampsia. Magnesium sulfate is one of the common anti-seizure medications used in preeclampsia.

Treating Postpartum Preeclampsia While Breastfeeding

Talk with your healthcare provider if you are planning to breastfeed. They can help make sure the recommended medications are safe for your infant while breastfeeding.

Complications

Without treatment, postpartum preeclampsia may lead to serious and life-threatening complications, such as:

  • Excess fluid around the lungs, causing difficulty breathing
  • Stroke, where blood flow to the brain is interrupted, cutting off the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the brain
  • Seizures, which can cause controlled movements, loss of consciousness, and confusion
  • Thromboembolism or blood clots that dislodge and block blood flow to a part of the body
  • HELLP syndrome, which stands for hemolysis (breakdown of red blood cells), elevated liver enzymes, and low platelet count

All of these complications could lead to death if left untreated.

While the complications of postpartum preeclampsia are serious, they can be prevented with treatment and rarely occur.

Coping

The time after childbirth can be challenging, even without health problems. Recovering from birth and caring for a newborn can be stressful. It’s important to pay attention to your own health as you recover from pregnancy by monitoring for symptoms and following up with your healthcare team.

If you are diagnosed with postpartum preeclampsia while you are at the hospital, you may need a longer hospital stay. Reach out to loved ones or contact your healthcare team for options to help provide you with more support when you get home.

Preparing for Future Pregnancies

If you have had preeclampsia during pregnancy or postpartum preeclampsia, you have a high risk of complications during future pregnancies. But it’s possible you won’t have complications during your next pregnancy. Your doctor will likely want to closely monitor you throughout a future pregnancy for signs of complications.

Your doctor may also recommend preventative treatments, like a daily aspirin during pregnancy and in the weeks following delivery, to reduce the risk of complications.

A Word From Verywell

Postpartum preeclampsia is a rare but serious condition if left untreated. If you think you have the symptoms of preeclampsia, seek immediate medical attention and contact your healthcare team. Medication can easily manage this condition, and many women make a full recovery.

If you’re pregnant again, your doctor may recommend closer monitoring and preventative treatments. However, most women can still have a healthy pregnancy in the future.

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