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After a routine pregnancy check-up, your doctor tells you there’s protein in your urine. Your first instinct may be to panic, but there are many possible reasons why protein is showing up in your urine – and not all of them are dangerous.
4 Causes for Protein in Urine During Pregnancy
It’s not uncommon to find small amounts of protein in your urine during pregnancy. But in some cases, protein is a sign of complications that require swift treatment.
1. Your Kidneys are Working Overtime
Protein may just be an indication that your kidneys are working overtime now that you’re pregnant. If only small amounts of protein are found in your urine, this is the likely cause.
And it’s no wonder your kidneys are tired – you’re running to the bathroom every five minutes. Frequent urination during pregnancy puts excess strain on your kidneys and may contribute to the protein found in your urine.
2. You May Have an Infection
Protein may also be a sign of a minor infection. If your doctor or midwife suspects that an infection is the cause, a sample of your urine will be sent to the hospital to check for a UTI (urinary tract infection).
If you do have a UTI, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to clear the infection. Most rounds of antibiotics last three to seven days.
Don’t worry – urinary tract infections are very common during pregnancy. But your doctor will monitor your condition closely to make sure the infection clears.
During pregnancy, hormones change the urinary tract, which makes you more vulnerable to infection. Your growing uterus also puts more pressure on your bladder, which makes it difficult to empty it completely. Stagnant urine in the bladder is the most likely cause of the infection.
If left untreated, a simple UTI can lead to a kidney infection. A kidney infection can cause low birth weight and preterm labor.
Also known as toxemia, preeclampsia is a serious medical issue that requires immediate medical attention. The condition typically presents itself at around 20 weeks of pregnancy.
A high protein level in the urine is one of the first signs of this condition. High blood pressure is another symptom.
When preeclampsia occurs, small blood vessels clamp down in the kidneys, liver, brain and other organs in the body. Women typically experience symptoms where the clamping is occurring.
The condition can also cause larger blood vessels to contract, which is what leads to high blood pressure.
Doctors are still unsure of what causes preeclampsia, but one theory is that it’s the result of a prostaglandins imbalance. Prostaglandins are responsible for the relaxing and contracting of smooth muscles when you’re pregnant.
Complications and Risk Factors
Preeclampsia requires immediate treatment and can lead to other complications if left untreated, including:
- Preterm delivery
- Abnormal liver functioning
- Low birth weight
- Placenta separating from the uterus
- Kidney failure
- Liver rupture
- Temporary loss of vision
- Death of the mother and/or baby (rare)
Any pregnant woman can develop preeclampsia, but you may be at higher risk if:
- You have a family or personal history of preeclampsia
- You have high blood pressure
- This is your first pregnancy
- You are in your teens or over 40 years of age
- You are pregnant with multiples
- You have diabetes
- You have a body mass index of 30 or higher
Signs and Symptoms
High blood pressure and high levels of protein in the urine are the two most common signs of preeclampsia. But women may also experience:
- Swelling of the face and hands
- Quick weight gain
- Blurred vision
- Severe headaches
- Anxiety and/or confusion
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Pain behind the sternum
- Pain in the upper abdomen or shoulder
- Shortness of breath
Preeclampsia can be a difficult condition to treat because the only true cure is the delivery of the baby. Depending on how far along you are in your pregnancy, delivery could be risky. If your doctor diagnoses you with this condition, he or she will develop a treatment plan that will work best for you and your baby.
With mild cases of preeclampsia that begin before the pregnancy reaches full-term (37 weeks), women are typically admitted to the hospital and closely monitored until delivery. Bed rest, fetal monitoring, low stimulation and blood and urine tests are usually a part of the regimen. Steroid treatments may be used to help your baby’s lungs develop. If the mother remains stable, delivery may wait until she reaches full-term.
In severe cases of preeclampsia, the baby will need to be delivered within a few days. Steroids will likely be used to help your baby’s lungs mature in the days leading up to delivery.
Preeclampsia is a serious condition, and that’s a major reason why your doctor conducts regular urine checks during your routine exams. If high levels of protein are found in your urine, your doctor will be able to create a treatment plan that works for your pregnancy.
4. It May Be HELLP Syndrome
A high protein level in your urine may also be a sign of HELLP, a variant of preeclampsia. HELLP is a life-threatening complication and requires immediate medical attention.
- H: Hemolysis
- EL: Elevated liver enzymes
- LP: Low platelet count
Initial symptoms of this condition are similar to preeclampsia and include:
- Vomiting and/or nausea
- Pain in the upper abdomen
- Blurred vision
If left untreated, HELLP can lead to a number of serious complications, including kidney and liver damage, placental abruption and pulmonary edema.
HELLP usually develops before the 37th week of pregnancy, but can also occur shortly after the mother gives birth. Most women who develop this syndrome are previously diagnosed with preeclampsia.
In most cases, delivery of the baby is the only real option, although your doctor will determine the right course of action for your pregnancy. Delivery may occur even if the baby is premature.
Other Urinary Issues during Pregnancy
- Cloudy urine during pregnancy: May be a sign of a UTI, or it may be caused by dehydration, hormones, or dietary changes.
- Blood in urine during pregnancy: A common sign of a UTI, but it may also be a sign of kidney stones, a kidney disorder or kidney cancer.
- Ketones in urine during pregnancy: A sign of gestational diabetes.
If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, see your doctor right way. None of these are normal and will require treatment to prevent pregnancy complications.