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What Is Eclampsia?

Eclampsia is a dangerous condition for a pregnant woman and her baby.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2014
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Eclampsia is a life threatening complication of pregnancy that typically is viewed as the end stage of preeclampsia. Preeclampsia in pregnancy describes a condition where women have excess levels of protein in urine, and where they have high blood pressure. Other symptoms like a lower platelet count and swelling (edema) can be present too. Though symptoms may be managed to a degree, the condition can’t be cured by anything but childbirth, and in about 1% of women eclampsia develops, which can cause violent seizures and coma, and which risks maternal and fetal death in some instances.

Not all women who have this condition have been previously diagnosed with preeclampsia, though many who get routine exams during pregnancy are identified with this condition and receive treatment. However, sometimes first indication of serious problems is a seizure, which might involve unconsciousness. Other symptoms may include abnormally high blood pressure and some women have significant muscle and/or joint soreness. Changes to vision could be noted and headaches, which are a common feature of high blood pressure, may be severe.

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If a seizure occurs during pregnancy, it is extremely important to get medical attention immediately. Doctors are likely to evaluate the patient for blood pressure levels and to look at proteins in urine, and function of the liver and kidneys (via blood work). When eclampsia is diagnosed, the goal is to get the mother to a reasonable time period to deliver her baby. If the condition is extremely severe, a baby might be delivered about eight weeks prematurely, and if eclampsia is less severe doctors might plan delivery about four weeks prior to normal due date. Doctors also tend to give anti-seizure medications that may help prevent more seizures.

Truly the only way to cure this serious illness is to deliver the baby. This usually resolves the condition fairly quickly, though moms might continue to need some blood pressure monitoring and doctors may not discontinue anti-seizure medication right away. Patients should also discuss with their doctors risk factors for this condition developing in a subsequent pregnancy, though this isn't tremendously likely. The most common risk factors for this condition include that it is a first pregnancy, and especially if the pregnant woman is a teen or over 35. Pregnancy with more than one child shows slightly increased risk, as does having high blood pressure or any disease of the kidneys prior to pregnancy.

Though delivery of the baby often ends the problem, a rare complication can occur after a child is delivered. Postpartum eclampsia is a very serious risk to health that may happen up to eight weeks after a child is born. When eclampsia is diagnosed during pregnancy, extra care needs to be taken after delivery to prevent this complication or watch for it.

Conditions like eclampsia make a strong argument for the importance of prenatal care. With that care, most women developing preeclampsia or eclampsia get the interventions they need to protect themselves and their babies. Without it, both mother and child may tragically suffer severe risk to health and potential loss of life.

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