Third Trimester

Q&A: What Is HELLP Syndrome?

What is HELLP syndrome?

HELLP stands for Hemolysis, Elevated Liver enzymes, and Low Platelet count — the three dangerous symptoms a woman experiences when she has the syndrome. According to the American Pregnancy Association, HELLP affects only about 0.2 to 0.6 percent of pregnancies, and it usually shows up after week 32. HELLP is a very serious condition, and unfortunately, the signs can be very vague. Sometimes, the patient will have high blood pressure, but often her symptoms are less distinct — she can be vaguely not feeling well, with some nausea or fatigue. It's a really tough diagnosis to make because it can seem like she's just getting the flu or another run-of-the-mill virus, and it can only be diagnosed by blood tests.

HELLP is a variant of preeclampsia and poses serious health risks to the mother, including excess bleeding, liver rupture and kidney failure. If your doctor finds out you have it, the only way to get rid of it is to deliver your baby. Of course, whether your doctor decides to do this right away or to wait will depend on baby's gestational age.

By Laura Riley, MD, ob-gyn, Director of Labor and Delivery at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of You & Your Baby: Pregnancy