Downton AbbeyAfter delivering a healthy baby girl, Lady Sybil of the popular PBS television show, Downton Abbey, took a turn for the worse. In the wee hours of the night her body was racked with seizures brought on by eclampsia. It was a heart wrenching episode in which the misdiagnosis of preeclampsia led to eclampsia and to her death. The archaic term for this condition was toxemia. If you are pregnant, it is important to know the symptoms of preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia is a condition that typically starts after the 20th week of pregnancy. It is related to increased blood pressure and protein in the mother’s urine. Although the cause of Preeclampsia is still not fully known, it is thought that preeclampsia affects the placenta and it can affect the mother’s kidney, liver, and brain. When preeclampsia causes seizures, the condition is known as eclampsia–the second leading cause of maternal death in the U.S. Preeclampsia is also a leading cause of fetal complications, which include low birth weight, premature birth, and stillbirth. Delivery of the fetus and placenta is the only known treatment for preeclampsia.

Estimates of the incidence of preeclampsia range from 2% to 8% in healthy women who have never before given birth. Preeclampsia and eclampsia are most common in first-time pregnancies. Pregnant teens and women over 40 are also at increased risk. In 5% of cases, preeclampsia may also occur after delivery as it did to Lady Sybil in the episode of Downton Abbey.

Having symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you have preeclampsia, but it could be a cause for concern. We recommend that you seek an immediate medical evaluation to determine the underlying cause. If you experience any of the following symptoms during your pregnancy or after delivery, call your doctor right away.

  • Swelling of the hands and face, especially around the eyes (swelling of the feet is more common in late pregnancy and probably not a sign of preeclampsia)
  • Weight gain of more than five pounds in a week
  • Headache that won’t go away, even after taking medication such as acetaminophen
  • Changes in vision like seeing spots or flashing lights; partial or total loss of eyesight
  • Nausea or throwing up, especially suddenly, after mid pregnancy (not the morning sickness that many women experience in early pregnancy)
  • Upper right belly pain, sometimes mistaken for indigestion or the flu
  • Difficulty breathing, gasping, or panting

Although some women with preeclampsia “just don’t feel right” and have NO symptoms. It is important to listen to your body. If you have a sense that something’s wrong, even without symptoms, trust yourself and contact your healthcare provider immediately. If you’d like to learn more about preeclampsia, click here to visit The Preeclampsia Foundation.

Please comment on what your first signs or symptoms were when you experienced preeclampsia.