What Is Eclampsia? - Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

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  • 0:00 Eclampsia vs. Preeclampsia
  • 1:31 What Causes It?
  • 2:22 Symptoms of…
  • 3:20 Treatment
  • 4:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Lawson

Sarah has taught nursing courses and has a master's degree in nursing education.

Eclampsia is a very serious complication of pregnancy involving seizures and convulsions. Learn more about the definition, symptoms and treatment, and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Eclampsia vs. Preeclampsia

Pregnancy is normally a very joyous time for couples and their families. They're thrilled to be bringing a new life into this world and happy anticipation grows as the due date draws near. Most of the time, women complete their pregnancies with no serious problems (other than battling with their mate over the baby name, of course). Some women, however, will experience medical complications with pregnancy. Eclampsia is one condition that affects some pregnant women.

Eclampsia is seizures or convulsions in a pregnant woman. This condition is life-threatening to the mother and baby if not treated promptly. Eclampsia is not related to an existing condition in the brain, such as epilepsy. Luckily, eclampsia is a very rare condition, affecting only one in 2,000 to 3,000 pregnancies each year. It can occur after developing another condition called preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia is a complication of pregnancy and is marked by hypertension and proteinuria. Hypertension is a condition of high blood pressure, usually 140/90 and higher. Proteinuria is a condition in which the urine contains abnormally high levels of protein.

Preeclampsia, also known as toxemia or pregnancy-induced hypertension, usually appears in the latter part of the second trimester or in the third trimester, but it can occur earlier or postpartum. Approximately 5 to 8% of all pregnancies are affected by preeclampsia.

What Causes It?

The exact cause of preeclampsia and eclampsia is unknown. It's believed to be the result of a placenta that does not function properly. Researchers also suspect that poor nutrition, high body fat or insufficient blood flow to the uterus may all be possible causes. It's also possible that genetics may play a role. Preeclampsia is most often seen in women who are experiencing their first pregnancy, in pregnant teenagers, or in pregnancy in women over age 40. Risk factors for developing preeclampsia include:

  • History of high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis prior to pregnancy
  • History of preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy
  • Having a mother/sister who had preeclampsia/eclampsia
  • History of obesity
  • Multiple gestation pregnancy (carrying more than one baby)

Symptoms of Preeclampsia and Eclampsia

Fortunately, not all women who have preeclampsia will go on to develop eclampsia. It's very difficult to determine which women will have seizures. There are some signs and symptoms seen in preeclampsia that are associated with a greater risk of seizures. These include:

  • Abnormal blood test (specifically elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count)
  • Headaches
  • Very high blood pressure (anything over 140/90 is considered a hypertensive condition)
  • Vision changes, such as spots or blurry vision

Other symptoms of preeclampsia include:

  • Gaining more than 2 pounds in one week
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain (especially in the upper right quadrant)
  • Swelling of hands, feet and face

As stated earlier, not every woman with preeclampsia will develop eclampsia. When preeclampsia turns into eclampsia, the following symptoms are typically present:

  • Seizures
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Severe agitation
  • Unconsciousness


There is no cure to treat preeclampsia or eclampsia. The only cure is to deliver the baby. The doctor will determine when this should be done based on the severity of symptoms and the gestation of the baby. If the preeclampsia is mild, the doctor may prescribe:

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