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Pre-eclampsia and Eclampsia: Causes and Treatments

Signs and Symptoms of Pre-Eclampsia and Eclampsia

WebMD Feature

Pre-eclampsia and eclampsia are forms of high blood pressure that occur during pregnancy and are accompanied by protein in the urine and edema (swelling). As the names suggest, these two disorders are related. Pre-eclampsia, sometimes called toxemia of pregnancy, may develop into the more severe eclampsia, which is pre-eclampsia together with seizure. These conditions usually develop during the second half of pregnancy (after 20 weeks), though sometimes they develop shortly after birth, and, in very rare situations, they occur before 20 weeks of pregnancy.

You are at increased risk of developing pre-eclampsia if:

  • This is your first pregnancy.
  • Your mother or sister had pre-eclampsia or eclampsia during pregnancy.
  • You are carrying more than one baby.
  • You are a teenager.
  • You are over 40 years old.
  • You already have high blood pressure, kidney disease or diabetes.
  • You are a smoker.
  • You are obese.
  • You suffer from malnutrition.
  • You carry a baby with so-called "non-immune hydrops."

If you are pregnant, increasing blood pressure may not make you feel different until it is dangerously high. So you should watch for signs of pre-eclampsia. If you develop pre-eclampsia, the first thing you notice may be rapid weight gain, on the order of two to five pounds in a single week. Many pregnant women have swelling of their feet or legs; however, swelling of your face or arms may be a sign of pre-eclampsia. If pre-eclampsia progresses from mild to moderate or severe, you may begin to notice other symptoms. Headache, vision changes and abdominal pain should prompt concern.

It is dangerous to allow blood pressure to stay high during pregnancy. High blood pressure may interfere with the placenta's ability to deliver oxygen and nutrition to your fetus, so your baby may be born weighing less than normal and may have other health problems. If your blood pressure continues to get higher and higher, your kidneys may have trouble functioning. You may have changes in the makeup of your blood, such as destruction of red blood cells (causing anemia), disturbed liver function, and decreased platelets (blood cells involved in clotting). Too few platelets can increase your risk of bleeding uncontrollably during delivery or even spontaneously. Your blood pressure may continue to climb, and you may develop seizures.

Once you begin to have seizures, you are considered to have eclampsia. This is a life-threatening situation for both you and your baby. During a seizure, you and your baby are at risk of being deprived of oxygen. In addition, the high blood pressure may cause the placenta to begin to separate from the wall of the uterus (called abruptio placentae). This can cause severe bleeding and death of the fetus and possibly the mother.


  • Rapid weight gain
  • Swelling of the arms or face
  • Headache
  • Changes in vision (blurred vision, seeing double, seeing spots of light)
  • Dizziness, faintness
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Abdominal pain
  • Decreased production of urine
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Blood in vomit or urine
  • Confusion
  • Seizures

Pre-eclampsia and Eclampsia: Causes and Treatments


Doctors are not sure exactly what causes pre-eclampsia or eclampsia.

Diagnostic and Test Procedures

During your pregnancy, your health-care provider will check your blood pressure at every prenatal visit. If your blood pressure increases greatly compared to before or early in pregnancy, or if your blood pressure numbers reach certain thresholds and you start having protein in your urine, then your health-care provider may diagnose you with pre-eclampsia. You can be diagnosed with this disorder without ever having had noticeable symptoms. Mild pre-eclampsia is diagnosed when your blood pressure is only a little elevated, while severe pre-eclampsia is diagnosed with very high blood pressures and other symptoms, such as headache, abdominal pain, blood and liver abnormalities, and having a large amount of protein in your urine.