Postpartum preeclampsia is a rare condition that occurs when a woman has high blood pressure and excess protein in her urine soon after childbirth.
Most cases of postpartum preeclampsia develop within 48 hours of childbirth. However, postpartum preeclampsia sometimes develops up to six weeks after childbirth. This is known as late postpartum preeclampsia.
Postpartum preeclampsia requires prompt treatment. Left untreated, postpartum preeclampsia can result in seizures and other serious complications.
Preeclampsia is a similar condition that develops during pregnancy and typically resolves with the birth of the baby.
Postpartum preeclampsia can be difficult to detect on your own. Many women who experience postpartum preeclampsia show no signs or symptoms during pregnancy. Also, you might not suspect that anything is wrong when you're focused on recovering after childbirth and caring for a newborn.
Signs and symptoms of postpartum preeclampsia — which are typically similar to those of preeclampsia that occurs during pregnancy — might include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension) — 140/90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or greater
- Excess protein in your urine (proteinuria)
- Severe headaches
- Changes in vision, including temporary loss of vision, blurred vision or light sensitivity
- Swelling of the face and limbs
- Upper abdominal pain, usually under the ribs on the right side
- Nausea or vomiting
- Decreased urination
- Sudden weight gain, typically more than 2 pounds (0.9 kilogram) a week
If you have signs or symptoms of postpartum preeclampsia shortly after childbirth, contact your health care provider right away. Depending on the circumstances, you might need immediate medical care.
The causes of postpartum preeclampsia and preeclampsia that occurs during pregnancy aren't well-understood. While preeclampsia is typically cured by childbirth, it's believed that postpartum preeclampsia is set into motion during pregnancy but doesn't cause symptoms until after delivery.
Limited research suggests that risk factors for postpartum preeclampsia might include:
- High blood pressure during your most recent pregnancy (hypertensive disease). You're at increased risk of postpartum preeclampsia if you developed high blood pressure after 20 weeks of pregnancy (gestational hypertension).
- Obesity. The risk of postpartum preeclampsia is higher if you're obese.
- Family history. Having a first-degree relative — a parent or sibling — with a history of preeclampsia increases your risk of preeclampsia.
- Age. Women who are younger than 20 or older than 40 are at increased risk of preeclampsia.
- Having multiples. Having twins or more babies increases your risk of preeclampsia.
Recent studies suggest that the father's genes may play a role in an increased risk of preeclampsia.
Complications of postpartum preeclampsia include:
- Postpartum eclampsia. Postpartum eclampsia is essentially postpartum preeclampsia plus seizures. Postpartum eclampsia can permanently damage vital organs, including your brain, liver and kidneys. Left untreated, postpartum eclampsia can cause coma. In some cases, the condition is fatal.
- Pulmonary edema. This life-threatening lung condition occurs when excess fluid develops in the lungs.
- Stroke. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted or severely reduced, depriving brain tissue of oxygen and food. A stroke is a medical emergency.
- Thromboembolism. Thromboembolism is the blockage of a blood vessel by a blood clot that travels from another part of the body. This condition is also a medical emergency.
- HELLP syndrome. HELLP syndrome — which stands for hemolysis (the destruction of red blood cells), elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count — can be life-threatening.
As with preeclampsia, postpartum preeclampsia might also increase your risk of future cardiovascular disease.
There's no known way to prevent postpartum preeclampsia. The best way to take care of yourself is to know the signs and symptoms of postpartum preeclampsia. Don't be afraid to contact your health care provider if you have questions or concerns about your health as you recover from childbirth.