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Lesson from Downton Abbey: Warning Signs of Preeclampsia

Lady on sofa

As my wife tuned in for one of the final episodes of Downton Abbey, I thought back to her tears and reaction several years ago, mumbling something about poor Sybil: "You wouldn't allow that happen one of your patients, right?"

I don't watch Downton Abbey, so after a bit of explanation I learned that Sybil suffered from preeclampsia, and had actually died after her condition progressed to eclampsia.

Today, we frequently check for signs of preeclampsia during prenatal visits. However, it’s important for women to be aware of the signs of this serious condition of pregnancy and know when to contact their doctors.

What is Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia, formerly called toxemia, is a disease of pregnancy that affects approximately 6-8 percent of women, usually during their first pregnancies.

Often women who have preeclampsia don’t feel sick or notice symptoms, making the condition more dangerous. Signs of preeclampsia include:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Protein in the urine
  • Significant edema, or excess fluid causing swelling (Note: Some swelling is normal in pregnancy.)

Later symptoms can include persistent headache, changes in vision, and upper abdominal pain.

Call Your Doctor

You should contact your doctor if you experience these symptoms. Preeclampsia can affect the baby's growth due to its effect on the blood vessels in the placenta.

Only about 1 in 3,200 pregnancies in the U.S. may progress into eclampsia like Sybil's. Eclampsia is simply preeclampsia which has worsened into a state of full seizures caused by the spasm and possible leaking of blood vessels in the brain. It is one of the three leading causes of maternal death in undeveloped countries, and represents 15 percent of maternal deaths in this country.

Can Eclampsia Be Prevented?

There is no ability to prevent preeclampsia. Early detection is the best way to prevent complications from the disease. Although blood pressure medications can be used to temporarily decrease the risk to the mother, these are only used when blood pressure has become threateningly high and they do not change the course of the disease. The only way to treat preeclampsia is by delivery of the fetus.

author name

John J. Eichenlaub, MD, FACOG

John J. Eichenlaub, MD, FACOG, is an obstetrician/gynecologist with Doctors Eichenlaub and May. He is the Medical Director at Women & Babies Hospital and chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Eichenlaub is a graduate of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He served his residency at Baystate Medical Center.

Call: 717-509-5090

About LG Health Hub

The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.


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