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Table of Contents > Conditions > Preeclampsia
Signs and Symptoms
What Causes It?
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Treatment Options
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Following Up
Special Considerations
Supporting Research

Preeclampsia is a dangerous combination of high blood pressure, fluid retention, and high levels of protein in the urine of women after their 20th week of pregnancy. Sometimes called toxemia, it affects about one in 20 pregnant women. If not treated, preeclampsia can worsen into eclampsia, a potentially fatal condition that involves seizures and coma. Preeclampsia puts unborn children and their mothers at risk.

Signs and Symptoms


  • High blood pressure (above 140/90)
  • Large increase in your systolic (top number) or diastolic (bottom number) blood pressure
  • Excessive weight gain (more than five pounds in a week)
  • Sudden weight gain over one or two days
  • Retention of fluids, which causes the hands and face to swell (pregnancy naturally causes the ankles to swell slightly, which is not necessarily a sign of preeclampsia)
  • Reduction in the amount of your urine


  • Pain in the upper right side of your abdomen
  • Disturbances to your vision, such as seeing flashing lights

What Causes It?

Nobody knows what causes preeclampsia. However, certain women have a higher risk of developing it in pregnancy. They include women in their first pregnancy; teenagers and women over 40 who are pregnant; women carrying multiple fetuses; women who have already suffered preeclampsia; African-American women; and women who have had high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease.

What to Expect at Your Provider's Office

Once you have described your symptoms, your health care provider will take your blood pressure and examine your face and hands for evidence of fluid retention. He or she will want samples of your blood and urine, for tests to differentiate between preeclampsia and other diseases. Your provider will probably want you to collect all the urine you produce during a full day.

Treatment Options

If you have a mild case of preeclampsia, your health care provider may recommend that you rest in bed. You should lie on your left side, to prevent the weight of your uterus from pressing against important blood vessels. You should drink a lot of water to help you urinate and get rid of excess fluids. Your provider will want to monitor your blood pressure and urine every couple of days.

If your pregnancy is far along (28 weeks or more) and you have severe preeclampsia, your provider may admit you to the hospital, where you will receive drugs to induce labor or a cesarean section.

Your practitioner may prescribe the following drugs, which are given intravenously.

  • Magnesium sulfate or hydralazine to reduce your blood pressure
  • Calcium gluconate intravenously if your blood pressure falls too low
  • Furosemide to encourage you to urinate more

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

If you have preeclampsia, you should be under the care of an obstetrician. Complementary and alternative therapies can be used with medical treatment. Some of the most common ones are described below.

  • Omega-3 oils (1,000 mg three times a day) are highly beneficial in pregnancy, and help reduce swelling.
  • Increasing protein intake may help minimize preeclampsia.
  • Magnesium (200 mg two to three times per day) helps reduce high blood pressure.


Herbs are generally a safe way to strengthen and tone the body's systems. As with any therapy, it is important to determine a diagnosis before pursuing treatment. Herbs may be used as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, teas should be made with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 to 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 to 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 to 4 cups per day. Tinctures may be used singly or in combination as noted.

Herbs that can be used to treat mild hypertension in pregnancy include the following: Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), hawthorn berries (Crataegus laevigata), cramp bark (Viburnum opulus), milk thistle (Silybum marianum), and Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata). Use equal parts of each in a tincture, 20 drops three to four times a day.


May be helpful in lowering blood pressure and generally increasing circulation.

Following Up

Your health care provider will monitor you carefully for the first few days after you have delivered your child. He or she will keep you in the hospital for several days to several weeks after you have delivered your baby, depending on the severity of the preeclampsia. You should have checkups at least every two weeks for the first several months after leaving the hospital.

Special Considerations

If you wear rings, remove them as soon as you start having symptoms. Swollen fingers can make it difficult (or even impossible) to remove rings, and they may begin to cut off circulation in your fingers.

The symptoms of preeclampsia can appear gradually and suddenly get worse. See your health care provider regularly for checkups during your pregnancy, which you should do regardless of your risk of preeclampsia. He or she can recognize the early signs of preeclampsia and get treatment for you immediately.

Supporting Research

Berkow R, ed. Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. 16th edition. Rahway, NJ: The Merck Publishing Group; 1992.

Berkow R, Beers MH, Fletcher AJ, eds. Merck Manual, Home Edition. Rahway, NJ: Merck & Co; 1997.

Klonoff-Cohen HS, Cross JL, Pieper CF. Job stress and preeclampsia. Epidemiol. 1996;7:245-249.

Larson DE, ed. Mayo Clinic Family Health Book. 2nd ed. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company; 1996.

Murray M. Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements. Rocklin, Calif: Prima Health; 1996.

Scalzo R. Naturopathic Handbook of Herbal Formulas. Durango, Colo: 2nd ed. Kivaki Press; 1994.

Review Date: August 1999
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Dahlia Hirsch, MD, Center for Holistic Healing, BelAir, MD; Lonnie Lee, MD, Internal Medicine, Silver Springs, MD; Pamela Stratton, MD, Chief, Gynecology Consult Service, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD; Elizabeth Wotton, ND, private practice, Sausalito, CA.

Copyright © 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc

The publisher does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information or the consequences arising from the application, use, or misuse of any of the information contained herein, including any injury and/or damage to any person or property as a matter of product liability, negligence, or otherwise. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made in regard to the contents of this material. No claims or endorsements are made for any drugs or compounds currently marketed or in investigative use. This material is not intended as a guide to self-medication. The reader is advised to discuss the information provided here with a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or other authorized healthcare practitioner and to check product information (including package inserts) regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed herein.

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