Practical Drug Safety

Drug Safety

, Volume 24, Issue 6, pp 457-474

First online:

Treating Hypertension in Women of Child-Bearing Age and during Pregnancy

  • Laura A. MageeAffiliated withChildren’s and Women’s Health Centre of British Columbia, University of British Columbia Email author 

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Hypertension is found among 1 to 6% of young women. Treatment aims to decrease cardiovascular risk, the magnitude of which is less dependent on the absolute level of blood pressure (BP) than on associated cardiovascular risk factors, hypertension-related target organ damage and/or concomitant disease. Lifestyle modifications are recommended for all hypertensive individuals. The threshold of BP at which antihypertensive therapy should be initiated is based on absolute cardiovascular risk. Most young women are at low risk and not in need of antihypertensive therapy. All antihypertensive agents appear to be equally efficacious; choice depends on personal preference, social circumstances and an agent’s effect on cardiovascular risk factors, target organ damage and/or concomitant disease.

Although most agents are appropriate for, and tolerated well by, young women, another consideration remains that of pregnancy, 50% of which are unplanned. A clinician must be aware of a woman’s method of contraception and the potential of an antihypertensive agent to cause birth defects following inadvertent exposure in early pregnancy. Conversely, if an oral contraceptive is effective and well tolerated, but the woman’s BP becomes mildly elevated, continuing the contraceptive and initiating antihypertensive treatment may not be contraindicated, especially if the ability to plan pregnancy is important (e.g. in type 1 diabetes mellitus). No commonly used antihypertensive is known to be teratogenic, although ACE inhibitors and angiotensin receptor antagonists should be discontinued, and any antihypertensive drugs should be continued in pregnancy only if anticipated benefits outweigh potential reproductive risk(s).

The hypertensive disorders of pregnancy complicate 5 to 10% of pregnancies and are a leading cause of maternal and perinatal mortality and morbidity. Treatment aims to improve pregnancy outcome. There is consensus that severe maternal hypertension (systolic BP ≥170mm Hg and/or diastolic BP ≥110mm Hg) should be treated immediately to avoid maternal stroke, death and, possibly, eclampsia. Parenteral hydralazine may be associated with a higher risk of maternal hypotension, and intravenous labetalol with neonatal bradycardia. There is no consensus as to whether mild-to-moderate hypertension in pregnancy should be treated: the risks of transient severe hypertension, antenatal hospitalisation, proteinuria at delivery and neonatal respiratory distress syndrome may be decreased by therapy, but intrauterine fetal growth may also be impaired, particularly by atenolol. Methyldopa and other β-blockers have been used most extensively. Reporting bias and the uncertainty of outcomes as defined warrant cautious interpretation of these findings and preclude treatment recommendations.