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Preeclampsia and Eclampsia

Also known as toxemia, preeclampsia is a condition that can develop in the second half of pregnancy -- sometimes earlier. When left untreated, it can turn into eclampsia, the more severe form of the condition.

Preeclampsia causes high blood pressure and a high level of protein in your urine. You may also have swelling in your feet, legs, and hands.

Eclampsia is much more serious but, with treatment, is rare. In addition to the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia, women with eclampsia have seizures. You can even go into a coma and die. And, your baby might also die before, during, or after childbirth.

No one knows exactly what causes these conditions. But some researchers suspect poor nutrition, high levels of body fat, or poor blood flow to the uterus.

One thing is certain: working closely with your doctor can ensure that you have the safest and healthiest pregnancy possible.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Preeclampsia?

In addition to swelling, protein in your urine, and high blood pressure, signs and symptoms of preeclampsia can include:

  • Rapid weight gain caused by a big increase in bodily fluid
  • Abdominal pain, especially in the upper right side
  • Severe headaches
  • Reduced output of urine or no urine
  • Dizziness
  • Excessive vomiting and nausea
  • Blurry vision

Many healthy pregnant women experience some of these symptoms and don't have preeclampsia. For example, some swelling is normal during pregnancy. But new swelling in your hands and face can be a result of preeclampsia. If you have swelling that doesn't go away with rest, along with some of the symptoms above, be sure to see your doctor right away. 

Other symptoms of preeclampsia may be mistaken for the flu or other problems. Don't decide for yourself what's going on. Tell your doctor right away if you notice any of these changes.

How Can Preeclampsia Affect My Baby and Me?

Preeclampsia can damage your organs. It can also prevent the placenta from receiving enough blood. This means your baby may not get needed food and oxygen, which can cause your baby to be born very small. It is also one of the leading causes of premature births. With prematurity, your baby is also at risk for other problems, such as learning disabilities, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and hearing and vision problems.

What Is the Treatment for Preeclampsia and Eclampsia?

The only real cure for preeclampsia and eclampsia is the birth of your baby.

For mild preeclampsia, your doctor may simply require careful observation -- at home or in the hospital -- along with restriction of your activities.

If your baby is not close to term, you and your doctor can often manage preeclampsia until your baby can be safely delivered. To prolong your pregnancy and increase your unborn baby's chances of survival, your health care provider may prescribe:

  • Bed rest
  • Hospitalization
  • Medication
  • Careful monitoring of you and your baby

If your baby is close to term, the doctor may induce labor.

For more severe preeclampsia, your doctor may need to deliver your baby right away, even if it is not close to term.

Other treatments may include:

  • Injection of magnesium to prevent eclampsia-related seizures
  • Hydralazine or another anti-hypertensive drug to manage severe elevations of blood pressure
  • Monitoring fluid intake

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Matthew Brennan, MD on June 05, 2012

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