Seizures are changes in the brain’s electrical activity. This change can cause dramatic, noticeable symptoms or it may not cause any symptoms. The symptoms of a severe seizure include violent shaking and a 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’s important to seek treatment if you experience them.
What are the types of seizures?
Types of seizures include the following:
Non-epileptic seizures result from an injury, such as a blow to the head, or an illness. When you get treatment for the condition, the seizures go away.
These seizures can occur if you have epilepsy, which is a condition that causes repeated seizures. This type of seizure 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.
These seizures occur on both sides of the brain and affect both sides of the body. Generalized seizures include grand mal or tonic-clonic seizures, which can occur if you have epilepsy.
Petit mal seizures are another type of generalized seizure. They’re also known as absence seizures. These seizures have few physical symptoms but may involve staring off into space for several seconds. If you have an absence seizure, other people can’t get your attention during the seizure.
What are the symptoms of a seizure?
You can experience both partial and generalized seizures at the same time, or one can precede the other. The symptoms can last anywhere from a few seconds to 15 minutes per episode.
Sometimes, symptoms occur before the seizure takes place. These include:
- a sudden feeling of fear or anxiousness
- a feeling of being sick to your stomach
- a change in vision
- a jerky movement of the arms and legs that may cause you to drop things
- an out of body sensation
- a headache
Symptoms that indicate a seizure is in progress include:
- losing consciousness, which is followed by confusion
- having uncontrollable muscle spasms
- drooling or frothing at the mouth
- having a strange taste in your mouth
- clenching your teeth
- biting your tongue
- having sudden, rapid eye movements
- making unusual noises, such as grunting
- losing control of bladder or bowel function
- having sudden mood changes
What causes seizures?
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
- a brain infection, such as meningitis
- a brain injury during childbirth
- a brain defect present at birth
- drug abuse
- drug withdrawal
- an electrolyte imbalance
- electric shock
- extremely high blood pressure
- a fever
- head trauma
- kidney or liver failure
- low blood glucose levels
- a stroke
Seizures can run in families. Tell your doctor if you or anyone in your family has a history of seizures. In some instances, especially with young children, the cause of the seizure may be unknown.
What are the effects of seizures?
If you don’t get treatment for seizures, their symptoms can become worse and 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. It’s important to wear a medical identification bracelet that tells emergency responders that you have epilepsy.
How are seizures diagnosed?
Doctors can have a difficult time diagnosing seizure types. Your doctor may recommend certain tests to diagnose a seizure accurately and to help ensure that the treatments they recommend 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 your doctor rule out other conditions that can cause seizure-like activity. The tests may include:
- blood testing to check for electrolyte imbalances
- a spinal tap to rule out infection
- a toxicology screening to test for drugs, poisons, or toxins
An electroencephalography test can help your doctor diagnose a seizure. These tests measure your brain waves. Viewing brain waves during a seizure can help your doctor diagnose the type of seizure.
Imaging scans such as a CT scan or MRI scan also can help by providing a clear picture of the brain. These scans allow your doctor to see abnormalities like blocked blood flow or a tumor.
How are seizures treated?
Treatments for seizures depend on the cause. By treating the cause of the seizures, you may be able to prevent future seizures from occurring. The treatment for seizures due to epilepsy include:
- surgery to correct brain abnormalities
- nerve stimulation
- a special diet, known as a ketogenic diet
With regular treatment, you can reduce or stop seizure symptoms.
How do you help someone who is having a seizure?
You should clear the area around a person who’s having a seizure to prevent possible injury. You should place them on their side and provide cushioning for their head.
Stay with the person, and call 911 as soon as possible if any of these apply:
- The seizure lasts longer than three minutes.
- They don’t wake up after the seizure
- They experience repeat seizures.
- The seizure occurs in someone who is pregnant.
- The seizure occurs in someone who has never had a seizure.
It’s important to remain calm. While there’s no way to stop a seizure once it’s begun, you can provide help. Here’s what the American Academy of Neurology recommends:
- As soon as you start noticing the symptoms of a seizure, it’s important to keep track of time. Most seizures last between one to two minutes. If the person has epilepsy and the seizure lasts longer than three minutes, call 911.
- If the person having the seizure is standing, you can prevent them from falling or injuring themselves by holding them in a hug or gently guiding them to the floor.
- Make sure they’re away from furniture or other objects that could fall on them or cause injury.
- If the person having the seizures is on the ground, try to position them on their side so that saliva or vomit leaks out of their mouth instead of down their windpipe.
- Don’t put anything into the person’s mouth.
- Don’t try to hold them down while they’re having a seizure.
After the seizure
After the seizure, you should do the following:
- Check the person for injuries.
- If you couldn’t turn the person onto their side during their seizure, do so when the seizure is over.
- Use your finger to clear their mouth of saliva or vomit if they’re having trouble breathing, and loosen any tight clothing around their neck and wrists.
- Stay with them until they’re fully awake and alert.
- Provide them with a safe, comfortable area to rest.
- Don’t offer them anything to eat or drink until they’re fully conscious and aware of their surroundings.
- Ask them where they are, who they are, and what day it is. It may take several minutes to become fully alert and be able to answer your questions.
Coping with epilepsy
Tips for living with epilepsy
It can be challenging to live with epilepsy. If you have the right support, it’s possible to live a full and healthy life. Here are some coping tips:
- Teach your friends and family more about epilepsy and how to care for you 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.
- Continue your usual activities if possible, and find ways to work around your epilepsy so you can maintain your lifestyle. For instance, if you’re no longer allowed to drive because you have seizures, you may want to move to a city with good public transportation so you can still get around.
- Find a good doctor who makes you feel comfortable.
- Try relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, or deep breathing.
- Find an epilepsy support group. You can find a local one by looking online or asking your doctor for recommendations.
Tips for caring for someone who has epilepsy
If you live with someone with epilepsy, there are some things you can do to help that person cope with their condition:
- Learn about their condition.
- Make a list of their medications, doctors’ appointments and other important medical information.
- Talk to the person about their condition and what role they would like you to play in helping them cope with their condition.
If you need help, reach out to their doctor or an epilepsy support group. The Epilepsy Foundation is another helpful resource.
How can you prevent seizures?
In many instances, a seizure isn’t preventable. However, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can give you the best chance at reducing your risk. You can do the following:
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Exercise regularly.
- Engage in stress-reducing techniques.
- Avoid taking illegal drugs.
If you’re on medication for epilepsy or other medical conditions, take them as your doctor recommends.
Written by: Rachel Nall, RN, BSN, CCRN
Medically reviewed on May 03, 2016 by Jeanne Morrison, PhD, MSN