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What Is Eclampsia?

Eclampsia is a rare but serious condition that causes seizures during pregnancy. Eclampsia is a severe complication of preeclampsia. Seizures are periods of disturbed brain activity that can cause episodes of staring, decreased alertness, and violent shaking (convulsions). Eclampsia affects about 1 in every 200 women with preeclampsia. You can develop eclampsia even if you don’t have a history of seizures.

What Causes Eclampsia?

Eclampsia often follows preeclampsia, which is characterized by high blood pressure after the 20th week of pregnancy. If your preeclampsia worsens and affects your brain, causing seizures or a coma, you have developed eclampsia.

Doctors don’t know what causes preeclampsia. The following explains how the symptoms of preeclampsia can lead to eclampsia.

High Blood Pressure

Preeclampsia can cause your blood pressure (the force of blood against the walls of your arteries) to become high enough to damage your arteries and other blood vessels. Damage to your arteries may restrict blood flow and produce swelling in the blood vessels of your brain. If this swelling interferes with your brain’s ability to function, seizures may occur.


Preeclampsia commonly affects kidney function. Protein in your urine, also known as proteinuria, is a key sign of the condition. Your kidneys filter waste from your blood but retain beneficial nutrients, such as protein, in the blood for redistribution to your body. If the kidneys’ filters (glomeruli) sustain damage, protein can leak through these filters and excrete into your urine.

Who Is at Risk for Eclampsia?

If you have or have had severe preeclampsia, you may be at risk for eclampsia.

Other risk factors for seizures during pregnancy include:

  • hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • headaches
  • over age 35
  • under age 20
  • pregnant with twins
  • pregnant for the first time
  • history of poor diet or malnutrition
  • diabetes or another condition that affects your blood vessels

What Are the Symptoms of Eclampsia?

Because preeclampsia can lead to eclampsia, you may have the symptoms of both conditions. However, some of your symptoms may be due to other conditions, such as kidney disease or diabetes. It’s important to tell your doctor about any conditions you have so they may rule out other possible causes.

The following are common symptoms of preeclampsia:

  • swelling in your face or hands
  • headaches
  • excessive weight gain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • vision problems
  • problems urinating

The following are common symptoms of eclampsia:

  • seizures
  • loss of consciousness
  • agitation
  • headaches or muscle pain

Eclampsia and Your Baby

Preeclampsia and eclampsia affect the placenta, which is the organ that delivers oxygen, blood, and nutrients to the fetus. When high blood pressure reduces your blood flow, the placenta may be unable to function properly. This may result in your baby being born with a low birth weight or other health problems. Problems with the placenta often require preterm delivery for the health and safety of the baby. In rare cases, these conditions cause stillbirth.

How Is Eclampsia Diagnosed?

If you already have a preeclampsia diagnosis or have a history of it, your doctor will order tests to determine if your preeclampsia worsened or reoccurred. If you don’t have preeclampsia, your doctor will order preeclampsia-related tests as well as others to determine why you’re experiencing seizures.

Blood Tests

Your doctor may order several types of blood tests to assess your condition. These tests include a hematocrit, which measures how many red blood cells you have in your blood, and a platelet count to see how well your blood is clotting.

Creatinine Test

Creatinine is a waste product created by the muscles. Your kidneys should filter most of the creatinine from your blood, but if the glomeruli don’t work properly, excess creatinine will remain in the blood. Having too much creatinine in your blood may (but doesn’t always) indicate preeclampsia.

Urine Tests

Your doctor may order urine tests to check for the presence of protein and its excretion rate.

What Are the Treatments for Eclampsia?

Delivering your baby is the only way to treat preeclampsia and eclampsia. If your doctor diagnoses you with preeclampsia, they may monitor your condition and treat you with medication to prevent eclampsia from developing. If you do develop eclampsia, your doctor may deliver your baby early, depending on how far along you are in your pregnancy. Early delivery may occur between 32 and 36 weeks of pregnancy if life-threatening symptoms arise or if medication doesn’t work.


Medications to prevent seizures (anticonvulsants) may be necessary. You may also need medication to lower blood pressure if you have high blood pressure.

Home Care

Taking all prescribed medications, getting rest, and monitoring any changes in your condition are critical for managing preeclampsia and eclampsia.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook?

Both preeclampsia and eclampsia symptoms should disappear once you have your baby. If complications occur, you may experience medical emergencies such as placental abruption. Placental abruption is a condition that causes the placenta, the organ that protects and nourishes the baby while in the womb, to detach from the uterus.

Getting the proper medical care for preeclampsia may prevent eclampsia. Make sure to talk to your doctor about any symptoms you may be experiencing. 

Content licensed from:

Written by: Brindles Lee Macon and Marijane Leonard
Published on: Jul 18, 2012
Medically reviewed on: Apr 03, 2017: Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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