Preeclampsia and Eclampsia: Understanding the Difference

Posted On: April 29, 2020 By CIW

Preeclampsia and eclampsia are two pregnancy complications that require the help of a maternal fetal medicine specialist. Both require specialized care  to ensure you have a healthy and successful pregnancy. Preeclampsia and eclampsia can be dangerous or even fatal, but the vast majority of cases in the United States are effectively managed and most patients do not have serious consequences.. Still you can experience illness and symptoms during pregnancy with preeclampsia and eclampsia, so here’s what to know about them. 

What is preeclampsia? 

Preeclampsia is a condition that is specific to pregnancy and is diagnosed when a pregnant woman has high blood pressure and other clinical signs after after 20 weeks of gestation.  Although high blood pressure before pregnancy is one risk factor for preeclampsia, most women who develop preeclampsia never had high blood pressure and may have had low blood pressure before pregnancy.   

How is preeclampsia diagnosed? 

New guidelines set forth by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend that high levels of protein in urine or proteinuria are not required to diagnose preeclampsia.  Maternal fetal medicine specialists test for preeclampsia through blood pressure tests and urine tests done in the office However, preeclampsia can also be diagnosed if a woman has high blood pressure with laboratory abnormalities such as  decreased blood platelets, or increases in liver or kidney tests.  Preeclampsia can also be diagnosed when there are complications with the liver or kidneys, fluid in the lungs, seizures, or visual disturbances. 

Preeclampsia Symptoms & Outcomes 

The symptoms associated with preeclampsia are stomach pain, headaches, swelling, trouble breathing, nausea, confusion, visual disturbances, and increased anxiety. Many patients will not have any symptoms.  Preeclampsia impacts 5 to 8 percent of all births in the U.S. every year. Fortunately, most women who suffer from preeclampsia deliver healthy babies and fully recover from this condition. However, there are some cases where women experience complications that may be life-threatening to both the mother and baby.  

How is preeclampsia treated? 

Gestational age, the health of the baby, and overall health and age of the mother determine how a maternal fetal medicine specialist manages preeclampsia. Precise and consistent assessment is necessary to evaluate how the disease is developingPatients with preeclampsia require more doctor’s visits and ultrasounds to ensure that the mother and baby are safe.  Frequently patients require evaluation at or admission to the hospital.   Ultimately, the treatment for preeclampsia is delivery of the baby.  In most cases, doctors will deliver the baby at around 37 weeks or at the time of diagnosis if after 37 weeks.  However, sometimes babies need to be delivered earlier.  

What is eclampsia? 

Eclampsia is a serious complication of preeclampsia, characterized by  seizures during or shortly after pregnancy. Eclampsia is a rare condition, but it is also treatable with proper medical intervention. If left untreated, eclampsia can lead to further seizures, which may result in brain damage, coma, or life-threatening pregnancy complications. 

Preeclampsia, by original definition, was the disorder preceding eclampsia. However, eclamptic seizures are only one of many potential complications. 

How is eclampsia diagnosed? 

Eclampsia is diagnosed when a woman who has preeclampsia has a seizure, or when a patient has a seizure and is then noted to have evidence of preeclampsia such as high blood pressure.  This means that many of the same factors that contribute to a preeclampsia diagnosis also contribute to eclampsia. 

Eclampsia Symptoms & Outcomes 

Seizures that occur with  eclampsia are usually generalized seizures, meaning the woman loses consciousness and experiences jerking movements and incontinence. Approximately 30 to 50% of eclamptic patients also experience HELLP syndrome, which stands for Hemolysis Elevated Liver enzymes and Low Platelets, and means that the body’s blood-clotting systems don’t work as they should. 

How is eclampsia treated? 

To prevent eclampsiamagnesium sulfate is given intravenously to patients with severe preeclampsiaMagnesium is also given to pateints with eclampsia to prevent more seizures.  This treatment should only be performed by a maternal fetal medicine specialist with appropriate facilities since overdoses can occur. 

It can be easy to worry that you may experience eclampsia if you’ve experienced symptoms of preeclampsia. However, if you find yourself with preeclampsia, you can rest assured that you and your baby will be monitored as carefully as possible for a positive pregnancy outcome. 

Who’s at risk for preeclampsia and eclampsia? 

There’s no known definite cause of preeclampsia and eclampsia, but there are risk factors that identify  women who are more likely to experience these complications. These  include high blood pressure before pregnancy, obesity, diabetes, multiple gestations (twins), previous pregnancies with preeclampsia, certain autoimmune conditionsheredity, ethnicity, being older than 35,  first pregnancies and IVF pregnancies.  Although the rate of death from preeclampsia and eclampsia are very low, it’s one of the leading causes of illness for mothers and newborns, meaning it’s important to partner with a maternal fetal medicine specialist who can discuss your best care options. 


Prevention of preeclampsia and eclampsia

A Maternal Fetal Medicine specialist may recommend low dose aspirin or other treatments to decrease the chance of a woman with risk factors for preeclampsia developing this condition.    These treatments are most effective if started earlier in pregnancy before there are any signs of preeclampsia.   


had preeclampsia in my pregnancy.  What now? 

Having preeclampsia in one pregnancy increases your risk of preeclampsia in future pregnancies.  It may also increase your risk of high blood pressure or other medical conditions in the future.  Meet with a Maternal Fetal Medicine doctor to discuss what happened in your pregnancy.  They can help you plan for future pregnancies and provide guidance on being your healthiest self.   


Schedule an Appointment 

The best way to reduce your chances of complications from preeclampsia and eclampsia is by partnering with an award-winning maternal fetal medicine specialist. To schedule a consultation at our New York City office, we invite you to contact us by calling or filling out our online formFor more information regarding preeclampsia and eclampsia or any other service, read our frequently asked questions or visit ourblog. 


Carnegie Imaging for Women blogs are intended for educational purposes only and do not replace certified professional care. Medical conditions vary and change frequently. Please ask your doctor any questions you may have regarding your condition to receive a proper diagnosis or risk analysis. Thank you!

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