Are you pregnant? Then you’re probably familiar with the drill: You check in at the front counter, get called back by the nurse, and make a quick stop at the ladies’ room on your way to the exam room.
But have you ever wondered why they have you give them a urine sample at every doctor’s visit throughout your pregnancy?
They’re checking for protein in your urine, which could indicate a number of serious conditions that have the potential to impact both you and your baby. Here’s what you need to know about what they’re looking for, and what it means if you have protein in your urine during pregnancy.
Why Do I Have to Give a Urine Sample at My Doctor’s Visit?
Every woman’s body responds differently to pregnancy, but it’s not practical to run a full gamut of tests at every visit to detect every disease. However, doctors can easily test for indicators of some of the most common pregnancy-related afflictions, and one of the ways they do that is by checking your urine for unexpected byproducts.
Some of the things they’re looking for when they check your urine are protein, sugars, ketones, or bacteria (source). Each of these things could indicate you may be developing a certain medical condition that needs special monitoring or treatment.
Keep In Mind
How Often Will They Check My Urine for Protein?
Many doctors will check your urine at every visit by dipping a chemical strip into your sample to give them an instant indication as to whether there is protein in your urine. Other doctors will check your urine less frequently at the beginning of your pregnancy, and monitor it more closely toward the end.
They may also send the sample off to a lab for a more thorough evaluation than the instant test strips provide.
If You’re Worried
Is Protein in My Urine Normal During Pregnancy?
Low levels of protein in your urine are normal (source). It’s when the amount of protein in your urine rises above a certain threshold that your doctor may become concerned.
However, some conditions can cause a temporary, harmless rise in your urine protein, including (source):
If your doctor detects elevated protein levels in your urine, they will conduct further testing to determine whether it was caused by one of the temporary conditions listed above, or by an ongoing medical issue that may need treatment.
What Does It Mean if I Have Protein in My Urine During Pregnancy?
Elevated protein levels during pregnancy can be a symptom of:
Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)
A UTI is a bacterial infection in the urinary tract. It is also known as a bladder infection (source).
Left untreated, the infection can spread to the kidneys and cause premature labor. You can help prevent a UTI by drinking plenty of water, emptying your bladder when you urinate, blotting with toilet paper from front to back after urinating instead of wiping, and wearing cotton underwear that you change daily.
Pregnant women are at a greater risk for UTI because of the increased pressure from the uterus on the bladder and urinary tract. This pressure can cause a blockage and prevent the bladder from emptying completely, causing infection.
When You Should Watch For It
Symptoms of a UTI:
- Discomfort, like pain or burning, when you urinate.
- Sensation that you can’t fully empty your bladder.
- Blood in the urine.
- Cloudy-looking urine.
- Foul-smelling urine.
- Urine leakage.
- Pain during sex.
- Lower abdominal cramps.
- Chills, fever, or sweating.
- Having the urge to pee all the time.
- Low back pain or flank pain (which may indicate a kidney infection).
UTIs are easily treated with antibiotics. Take the full course of your antibiotic to ensure it doesn’t recur, and abstain from sex during your treatment.
Kidney disease refers to any condition that affects the function of your kidneys. Your kidneys play a major role in filtering your blood and regulating your blood pressure.
While it’s possible to have a rapid decline in kidney function, for the most part, kidney disease develops over a period of several years. For this reason, it’s rare to have a kidney disease develop during pregnancy — more often, it’s simply the detection of a previous condition or the symptom of another pregnancy-related condition (source).
Symptoms of Kidney Disease:
There are few symptoms of kidney disease, especially in the early stages. If it is not detected and treated, it will advance.
Symptoms of advanced kidney disease include (symptoms):
- Swollen ankles.
- Puffy eyes.
- Vomiting, or the sensation you’re going to vomit.
- Fatigue and lack of energy.
- Decreased sense of taste.
- Decreased appetite.
- Shortness of breath.
- Frothy or foamy urine.
- Leg cramps.
- Poor sleep.
- Decreased urine output.
Kidney disease can be chronic, meaning it is irreversible. However, often the kidneys’ decreased function may be due to another underlying health issue.
If you have kidney disease your doctor will work to diagnose the cause of your decreased kidney function, and treat that primary issue to help improve your kidneys’ function once again.
Diet changes can also help to improve kidney function and prevent further damage. If kidney damage progresses to full kidney failure, dialysis becomes necessary. Fortunately, this would be extremely rare to occur in pregnancy.
Preeclampsia is a pregnancy-related condition that causes blood vessels to constrict (source). This causes your blood pressure to rise and for you to retain water.
Reduced blood flow from narrow blood vessels can also affect the function of the kidneys, liver, and brain.
Untreated preeclampsia can lead to more serious conditions such as eclampsia, seizures, or kidney disease.
When To Watch For It
Symptoms of Preeclampsia:
Often preeclampsia has no noticeable symptoms and is only detected by protein in your urine or elevated blood pressure at your doctor’s visit. Other times it comes on suddenly, and symptoms are apparent. However, the symptoms mimic normal pregnancy ailments and may be difficult to discern.
Some common symptoms of preeclampsia are:
- Facial swelling, especially around the eyes.
- Sudden swelling of extremities.
- Rapid weight gain.
- Severe headache.
- Abdominal pain.
- Vision changes.
While preeclampsia is serious and seems scary, the good news is because it’s rather common, doctors are quite good at looking for it, diagnosing, and treating it. Treatment will depend on where you are in your pregnancy.
For most women, it simply involves close monitoring of the condition to make sure it doesn’t worsen.
For women with severe preeclampsia, hospitalization is necessary for round-the-clock monitoring. Medication may also be administered to prevent seizures.
It’s common for women with preeclampsia to be induced early or right at 37 weeks to prevent harm to the baby that can be caused by the restricted blood flow to the placenta.
You should know that the finding of protein alone doesn’t mean you have preeclampsia. It takes the combination of protein in the urine AND high blood pressure to make the diagnosis of preeclampsia.
Editor's Note:Christine Traxler, MD, BS
How Do I Know if I Have Protein in My Urine?
If you are concerned about protein in your urine, talk to your doctor. They are experts at regular monitoring and know exactly what to look for. If they are having you give regular urine samples, ask if protein is present.
If you have other health conditions that make you concerned you may develop protein in your urine, it is possible to monitor at home with over-the-counter test strips. You can regularly monitor your urine protein levels so if it changes, you can talk with your doctor immediately about your concerns.
If you have large amounts of protein in your urine, you may notice that your urine is frothy or foamy (source). However, if you are regularly monitored by your doctor, it’s likely they would detect any conditions well before this point, so the chance of it happening is rare.
Some protein in your urine is normal, and the occasional presence of higher levels doesn’t necessarily mean you have a dangerous health condition. However, doctors monitor urine protein closely because it is an easy-to-find indicator of a few common pregnancy conditions, including:
- Urinary tract infections.
- Kidney disease.
These conditions may not display any notable symptoms before they become severe, and need close monitoring once they are diagnosed to prevent them from becoming life-threatening. So even though giving your doctor a urine sample every time you walk through the door can seem tiresome, they have you do it for a good reason.
Did you suffer from any pregnancy-related health conditions? Tell us about them in the comments below, and share this information with an expectant mama in your life.