Seizures are changes in the brain’s electrical activity. This can cause dramatic, noticeable symptoms or even no symptoms at all. The symptoms of a severe seizure are often widely recognized, including violent shaking and loss of control. However, mild seizures can also be a sign of a significant medical problem, so recognizing them is important. Because some seizures can lead to injury or be evidence of an underlying medical condition, it is important to seek treatment if you experience them.
Several different seizure types exist. One example is non-epileptic seizures, which result from injury. This includes a blow to the head or an illness. When the condition is treated, the seizures go away.
Partial seizures are associated with epilepsy, a condition that causes repeated seizures. This seizure type happens on only one side of the brain. As a result, one side of the body is affected during a seizure. Other names for partial seizures include focal, Jacksonian, and temporal lobe seizures.
Generalized seizures take place on both sides of the brain. This seizure type affects both sides of the body. This includes the grand mal or tonic-clonic seizure, which is most associated with epilepsy.
Petit mal seizures are another generalized seizure example. Also known as absence seizures, these seizures have few physical symptoms but may involve a person staring off into space for several seconds. The person’s attention cannot be captured during this time.
You can experience both partial and generalized seizures at the same time or one can precede the other. Symptoms can last anywhere from a few seconds to 15 minutes per episode.
Some seizures occur with warning signs before the seizure takes place. These include:
- sudden feelings of fear or anxiousness
- feeling sick to your stomach
- changes in vision
Seizure symptoms, such as the following, take place after these symptoms and indicate a seizure in progress:
- a blackout of time, followed by confusion
- uncontrollable muscle spasms
- drooling or frothing at the mouth
- experiencing a strange taste in your mouth
- clenching teeth
- sudden, rapid eye movements
- making unusual noises, such as grunting
- losing control of bladder or bowel function
- sudden mood changes
Seizures can stem from a number of health conditions. Anything that affects the body also may disturb the brain and lead to a seizure. Some examples include:
- alcohol withdrawal
- bites and/or stings
- brain infection, such as meningitis
- brain injury during childbirth
- brain defect present at birth
- drug abuse
- drug withdrawals
- electrolyte imbalance
- electric shock
- extremely high blood pressure
- head trauma
- kidney or liver failure
- low blood glucose levels
Seizures can run in families. Notify your physician if you or anyone in your family has a history of seizures.
In some instances, especially with young children, there may be no known seizure cause.
If left untreated, seizures can worsen in terms of symptoms and become progressively longer in duration.
Extremely long seizures can lead to coma or death.
Seizures also can lead to injury, such as falls or trauma to the body if convulsions are involved. For this reason, it is important for those with epilepsy to wear a medical identification that helps emergency responders identify that person.
A person who experiences seizures also should notify friends and family of how to care for the person while a seizure is occurring. This includes taking steps to reduce the risk of injury like cushioning your head, loosening tight clothing, and turning you on your side if vomiting occurs.
Physicians can have a difficult time diagnosing seizure types. Your doctor may suggest many tests to accurately diagnose a seizure to ensure treatment recommendations will be effective.
Your doctor will consider your full medical history and the events leading up to the seizure. For example, conditions such as migraine headaches, sleep disorders, and extreme psychological stress can cause seizure-like symptoms.
Lab tests may help to further rule out other conditions that can cause seizure-like activity. These include:
- blood testing to check for electrolyte imbalances
- spinal tap to rule out infection
- toxicology screening to test for drugs, poisons, or toxins
An electroencephalography or EEG test can help a physician diagnose a seizure. These tests measure your brain waves. Viewing brain waves during a seizure can help a physician diagnose the seizure type.
Imaging scans such as a CT scan or MRI scan also can help by providing a clear picture of the brain, allowing your doctor to see any abnormalities like blocked blood flow or a tumor.
In many instances, a seizure cannot be prevented. However, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can give you the best chance at reducing your risk. This includes getting plenty of sleep, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly.
Engaging in stress-reducing techniques may help to reduce seizures. You also should refrain from taking illegal drugs.
If you are on medication for epilepsy or other medical conditions, be sure to take them as directed to prevent seizures.
The area around a person should be cleared during a seizure to prevent possible injury. The person should be placed on his or her side with the head cushioned.
Stay with the person and contact emergency responders as soon as possible if the seizure lasts longer than two to five minutes, if the person does not awaken after the seizure, or if he or she experiences repeat seizures.
Treatments for seizures vary based upon the seizure’s cause. By treating the cause of the seizures, you may be able to prevent future seizures from occurring.
If the seizures are due to epilepsy, treatments include:
- surgery to correct brain abnormalities
- nerve stimulation
- special diet, known as a ketogenic diet
With regular treatment, those with epilepsy can experience a reduction or cessation of seizure symptoms.
Written by: Rachel Nall
Medically reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP