Pre-eclampsia test for pregnant women: What is the potentially serious condition?

Pregnant woman getting blood test for pre-eclampsia. (Getty Images)
Blood tests will aid midwives to diagnose pre-eclampsia in pregnant women earlier. (Getty Images)

Pregnant women are to benefit from life-saving blood tests that can help diagnose suspected preterm pre-eclampsia, as recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

Pre-eclampsia is a a potentially serious complication of pregnancy that affects up to 6% of pregnancies, thought to be associated with problems in the development of the placenta.

While tests have previously only been recommended to help rule out pre-eclampsia, these new checks suggested for use on the NHS will be able to help midwives diagnose the condition and give mothers and unborn babies the care they need, when they need it, as well as more prompt reassurance and understanding.

Four blood tests that can be used between 20 to 37 weeks of pregnancy have been recommended, which measure levels of placental growth factor (PLGF) in the blood. PLGF is a protein that helps the development of new blood vessels in the placenta, which oxygen and nutrients pass through to the baby.

Nurse doing blood test on pregnant woman. (Getty Images)
'This is extremely valuable to doctors and expectant mothers as now they can have increased confidence in their treatment plans and preparing for a safe birth.' (Getty Images)

In pre-eclampsia if PLGF levels are abnormally low this could be an indicator the placenta is not developing properly. But with midwives now able to pre-empt the condition in this way, along with other checks, they can take appropriate action such as making a referral to a specialist and hospital admission to monitor the mother and unborn baby.

While many cases of pre-eclampsia are mild, the condition can lead to serious complications for both mother and baby if it's not monitored and treated, which is why making an earlier diagnosis is so important in providing a better outlook all-round.

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Pre-eclampsia is only cured by delivery of the baby, so you'll usually be monitored regularly until it's possible for the baby to be delivered. Evidence presented to the NICE committee showed the use of the tests did not lead to unnecessary early delivery.

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Jeanette Kusel, acting director for MedTech and digital at NICE, says, "These tests represent a step change in the management and treatment of pre-eclampsia.

"This is extremely valuable to doctors and expectant mothers as now they can have increased confidence in their treatment plans and preparing for a safe birth."

For those who do have pre-eclampsia, it usually affects pregnant women during the second half of pregnancy (from 20 weeks) or soon after their baby is delivered. Severe instances of the condition develops in around 1-2% of UK pregnancies.

Though most cases of pre-eclampsia cause no problems and improve soon after the baby is delivered, there is a risk the mother can develop life-threatening fits called 'eclampsia', but this is rare.

Early signs of pre-eclampsia include having high blood pressure (hypertension) and protein in your urine (proteinuria), which should be picked up during routine antenatal appointments.

However, in some cases, further symptoms can include a severe headache, vision problems such as blurring or flashing, pain just below the ribs, vomiting or sudden swelling of the face, hands or feet.

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Factors that can increase your chances of developing pre-eclampsia include diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, autoimmune conditions and having eclampsia or high blood pressure in a previous pregnancy.

If you notice any symptoms of pre-eclampsia call your midwife, GP surgery or NHS 111 immediately.

If you or someone you know is suffering from pre-eclampsia, or you are worried, you can also call Action on Pre-eclampsia Monday to Friday from 9am to 9pm on 01386 761 848, email info@apec.org.uk, or direct message them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Pregnant woman at check up. (Getty Images)
While some pre-eclampsia signs should be picked up in antenatal appointments, it's important to be aware of other symptoms too. (Getty Images)