What is a seizure?
A seizure is a symptom, not a disease. It happens when
nerve cells in the brain function abnormally and there is a
sudden abnormal electrical signal in the brain. The seizure
can cause strange sensations and behavior and sometimes
muscle spasms and a change in or loss of consciousness.
If you have repeated seizures, your health care provider
may diagnose seizure disorder or epilepsy. This diagnosis
means your provider can find no correctable cause for the
The 2 most common types of seizures are:
focal or partial seizures, which begin in a specific
area of the brain but sometimes may spread to involve
all of the brain
generalized seizures, which seem to involve all of
the brain from the start of the seizure.
Partial seizures may cause some numbness or jerking of
the limbs, but the common feature is the presence of sensing
something that others aren't aware of. For example, you may
see flashing lights, have the sensation of a particular
taste, or hear noises. With partial seizures you may be
awake and remember what happened or you may lose
Generalized seizures are further divided into 2 types of
seizures based on the pattern of the attack:
Grand mal seizure: a generalized seizure that starts
with a loss of consciousness and falling down, followed
by a brief period of rigid muscles and a 1- to 2-minute
period of violent, rhythmic jerking. The seizure ends
with a few minutes of deep sleep before you return to
consciousness. You will probably not remember the
seizure and be drowsy for hours after the seizure.
Absence or petit mal seizure: a short period of
staring, fluttering eyelids, or twitching of facial
muscles. Each seizure may last only 10 to 30 seconds,
but hundreds may happen each day. Usually you do not
remember the seizure. Petit mal seizures usually begin
when you are a child.
A nearly constant series of seizures or one prolonged
seizure, usually a grand mal type, is called status
epilepticus. It can be life threatening and is treated as a
How does it occur?
A seizure is a symptom associated with many diseases and
brain injury at birth
brain infections such as meningitis or encephalitis
withdrawal from alcohol and drugs such as narcotics,
cocaine, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills
metabolic imbalances, such as low blood sugar.
Often the cause of seizures or the abnormal electrical
signals in the brain is not known.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of a seizure can include:
uncontrollable twitching or jerking of part of the
body (for example, the hand or foot)
prolonged muscle spasms spreading to the arms and
hallucinations, which may be visual or involve other
senses such as hearing, touch, or taste
intense feelings of fear or deja vu (the feeling
that you are encountering circumstances or a place that
you previously experienced)
aura, a peculiar sensation that occurs just before a
seizure (for example, seeing flashing lights or hearing
loss of consciousness
loss of control of your bladder muscles so that you
How is it diagnosed?
Your health care provider will examine you and take your
medical history. You may have blood tests and one or more of
the following safe and painless tests or scans:
EEG, which measures electrical activity in the brain
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan, which uses
magnetism, radio waves, and a computer to produce a
picture of the inside of your head
CT (computed tomography) scan, in which x-rays are
taken of your brain at different angles and then
combined by a computer.
How is it treated?
The treatment for seizures depends on the cause. Your
health care provider may prescribe an anticonvulsant drug.
This medicine will help prevent seizures. Your health care
provider will adjust the dosage to minimize any side effects
from the drug. If your seizures continue while you are
taking medicine, your health care provider will:
Check the level of the drug in your blood.
Make sure you are taking your medicine as
Make sure you aren't drinking alcohol or using
illegal street drugs.
Check to see if you are taking other medicines that
may interfere with the anticonvulsant.
Medicine is the main treatment for seizures, but several
new treatments are being evaluated. These include:
Your friends and family should know first aid for
seizures. When you have a seizure, they should:
Loosen clothing around your neck.
Not try to hold you down. You should be allowed to
move freely. Objects should be moved away from you to
Not put anything in your mouth, but check for
breathing. (The risk of biting your tongue is less than
the danger of inhaling or being injured by anything put
in your mouth.)
Not move you during a seizure unless there is danger
If you are vomiting, turn you on your side if
possible. This will help prevent choking on the vomit.
After the seizure is over, turn you on your side
while you become alert (in case you start vomiting).
Time how long the seizure lasts. If it lasts more
than 3 to 5 minutes or you seem not to be breathing,
someone should call 911 for emergency help.
How long will the effects last?
It is not possible to know how long seizures will be a
problem for any one person. Absence seizures often stop by
the time you are an adult. Other seizures may continue
occurring. Depending on the type of seizures you have and
how often you have them, your health care provider may be
able to recommend that you try slowly decreasing your
medicines. You usually have to be seizure-free for at least
3 years before this is even considered. During this time it
is very important to avoid any activity where your life or
that of others might be in danger if you had a seizure.
Never stop taking your medicine without first checking with
How can I take care of myself?
Follow the treatment prescribed by your health care
Eat a nutritious diet and create a balance of work,
rest, recreation, and exercise in your life.
Wear a medical ID bracelet.
Tell your supervisor and co-workers at work or your
teachers at school that you may have a seizure. Tell
them what to do if one occurs.
If your seizures are not well controlled, you should
avoid high-risk sports such as skiing and scuba diving.
Ask your health care provider which sports are safe for
Avoid high-risk jobs that involve heavy or
fast-moving equipment, heights, bodies of water, or
other situations where you or others might be injured if
you have a seizure.
Ask your health care provider when you may safely
drive a car again. In some states you must report a
history of seizures when you apply for a driver's
license. Check with your state's Department of Motor
Vehicles for specific rules.
Keep a positive attitude and develop techniques to
What can I do to help prevent seizures?
To help prevent further seizures:
Take your medicine as directed.
Make sure you get enough sleep every night. Getting
too little sleep can be a major cause of seizures if you
have a seizure disorder.
Avoid mood-altering drugs, including stimulants and
If you start to develop a fever, reduce it promptly
with aspirin or acetaminophen.
Call your health care provider if you have side
effects from your medicine or if the seizures continue
Keep all of your follow-up appointments with your
health care provider.
For more information, call or write:
Epilepsy Foundation of America
Epilepsy and Seizure Disorder Service
4351 Garden City Drive
Landover, MD 20785
Answers specific questions from callers, referrals to local
chapters, catalog of educational materials (800-213-5821)