New Test Is Promising for Pregnant Women at Risk of Preeclampsia

Medical providers have a new tool to help identify people at risk for severe preeclampsia, a potentially fatal high blood pressure condition that occurs in pregnancy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a blood test that can predict with 96 percent certainty whether a pregnant patient will develop preeclampsia within the next two weeks.

“If we suspect that a patient has severe preeclampsia, we admit them to the hospital for a period of observation,” says UNC Health maternal-fetal specialist Kim Boggess, MD, who has been involved in the research that developed the test. “I’m optimistic that the test will help us better triage patients and understand who needs to be in the hospital and who can safely be managed as an outpatient.”

The test measures the amount of two proteins in the blood that signal the potential for developing severe preeclampsia. It is currently available only in a few hospitals and requires a specially equipped laboratory. Dr. Boggess says it should become available at more places soon.

Although the test is not widely available now, there are steps you can take to protect yourself against preeclampsia. Here’s what you need to know.

What is preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia—persistent high blood pressure that develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy—affects about 1 in 25 women. In extreme cases, it can be fatal for mother and baby. This serious condition often is associated with high levels of protein in the urine or decreased blood platelets, trouble with the kidneys or liver, fluid in the lungs, or seizures or visual disturbances such as blurry vision or seeing spots.

Other symptoms include:

  • A headache that won’t go away
  • Pain in the upper stomach
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Swelling of the face or hands
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Trouble breathing

Some women have no symptoms. This is why pregnant people—especially those at risk for preeclampsia—should see their doctor regularly.

Who is most at risk?

The risk of developing preeclampsia may be greater if:

  • This is your first pregnancy
  • You had preeclampsia during a previous pregnancy
  • Others in your family have had preeclampsia
  • You have chronic high blood pressure or chronic kidney disease
  • You are carrying multiple babies (such as twins)
  • You have diabetes or obesity
  • You are older than 40

Black women are 60 percent more likely to develop preeclampsia than white women.

How is preeclampsia treated?

If there is concern that preeclampsia will worsen, the doctor often will admit the patient to a hospital to monitor or treat the condition, Dr. Boggess says.

For people at moderate or high risk for the condition, providers will prescribe low-dose baby aspirin, which has been shown to reduce risk.

There is no treatment for preeclampsia other than delivery. If preeclampsia threatens the lives of mother or baby, the baby may need to be delivered. After 37 weeks of pregnancy, the doctor may induce labor using medication. Before 37 weeks, the doctor may try to reduce symptoms to give the baby as many days in the womb as is safe for mother and baby, primarily to allow the baby’s lungs to develop.

Most of the time, preeclampsia symptoms resolve after the baby is born. In uncommon cases, however, a person may develop preeclampsia up to six weeks after delivery. The condition also may affect a woman’s health by increasing her risk for heart disease later in life.

If you are pregnant, see your prenatal care provider regularly, and be sure to reach out right away if you develop symptoms of preeclampsia. Need a provider? Find one here.