Understanding Seizures

This information answers some common questions about seizures, including what to do if you or someone else has a seizure. The first section is for you, the patient, and the second part is for your family and friends.

Having a seizure or watching someone have one can be very scary. For some people, it can also be embarrassing. Knowing what to do can help avoid an injury and may make it easier after the seizure. If others know how to help, they can prevent you from getting hurt.

For Patients

What is a seizure?

A seizure is sudden, uncontrolled, electrical activity in the brain. It can take place at any time, and can change how you feel, behave, or sense things. There are different types of seizures based on the area of the brain affected.

Partial seizures involve:

  • Jerking or stiffening on one side of the body.
  • Changes to sensation, hearing, vision, smell, or taste.
  • A feeling of déjà vu, with or without loss of awareness.

Generalized seizures affect consciousness, and involve:

  • A larger area of the brain.
  • Jerking motions of the arms and legs, which can cause you to fall.
  • Producing too much saliva.
  • Urinating or have a bowel movement.

What causes seizures?

Sometimes the cause of seizures is unknown. Some possible causes include:

  • A brain tumor or cancer that has spread to the brain
  • An injury or infection in the brain
  • A stroke
  • An electrolyte imbalance (when the levels of minerals in your body are too high or too low)
  • Substance abuse or withdrawal
  • A high fever
  • Withdrawal from antiseizure medication

Will I know when I’m going to have a seizure?

Some people can tell what triggers their seizures or can sense when one is about to start. This is called an aura. During an aura, you may have:

  • Changes in your sense of smell or taste
  • A feeling of warmth or tingling
  • Visual changes, such as seeing a flashing light
  • Ringing in your ears

What happens after a seizure?

With some types of seizures, you may feel like nothing happened. Others may require that you rest for the rest of the day. You may:

  • Feel confused
  • Feel tired
  • Have muscle weakness
  • Have problems speaking

What are some common medications to control seizures?

Your doctor will order medication(s) to help control your seizures. Your nurse will review the possible side effects of these medication(s) with you and what to do if you have any. Examples of medications that your doctor may prescribe include:

  • Carbamazepine (Tegretol®)
  • Clobazam (Onfi®)
  • Divalproex sodium (Depakote®)
  • Gabapentin (Neurontin®)
  • Eslicarbazepine (Aptiom®)
  • Lamotrigine (Lamictal®)
  • Lacosamide (Vimpat®)
  • Levetiracetam (Keppra®)
  • Oxcarbazepine (Trileptal®)
  • Phenobarbital (Luminal®)
  • Phenytoin (Dilantin®)
  • Topiramate (Topamax®)
  • Zonisamide (Zonegran®)

What should I know about taking medication(s) to prevent seizures?

  • Take your seizure medication(s) as prescribed. If you forget a dose, take it unless it is almost time for your next dose. If it’s time for your next dose, skip the dose you missed and keep your regular schedule. Do not double your dose or take extra medication.
  • Do not stop taking your medication(s) unless your doctor tells you to stop, even if you have not had a seizure or if you feel better.
  • Some over-the-counter and prescribed medications may interact with seizure medications or make it more likely for you to have a seizure. It is important for you to tell your doctor about all medications that you are taking. 
  • Some herbal supplements can your lower seizure threshold (make you more likely to have a seizure) or change the blood level of your seizure medications. Discuss any herbal supplements that you are taking with your doctor.
  • If you are a woman of childbearing age, discuss contraception (birth control) with your healthcare provider. Some seizure medications may make your oral contraceptives (birth control pill) less effective.
  • Call your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns.
  • Keep all appointments with your healthcare providers.

What can I do to keep myself safe?

  • Ask your healthcare provider if you should have a MedicAlert® bracelet. This will alert people that you have a seizure condition if you are unconscious and unable to speak.
  • Discuss driving limitations with your healthcare provider and know the driving laws of the state where you are.
  • Be aware of water safety. Never swim without a lifeguard. Take showers instead of baths.
  • Do not climb ladders or work at high heights.
  • Make sure you use appropriate safety equipment, such as helmets and life jackets, during recreational activities. Speak with your healthcare provider about your activities.  
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For Friends and Family

Share this information with your family and friends so they know what to do if you have a seizure.

What should I do if my loved one has a seizure?

  • Keep calm.
  • Keep your loved one away from anything dangerous, such as sharp objects.
  • Turn your loved one on his or her side.
  • Put something soft under his or her head and loosen any tight clothing.
  • Note how long the seizure lasts, if you can.
  • Note what the seizure looks like so you can describe it to the doctor or paramedics.
  • Stay with your loved one until the seizure is over.
  • Notify your loved one’s healthcare provider.

What should NOT be done during a seizure?

  • Do not try to stop the seizure or use any restraint, such as holding the person down.
  • Do not put anything in your loved one’s mouth.
  • Do not allow your loved one to eat or drink anything until fully awake and alert.

When should I call emergency medical services (911)?

  • If it is your loved one’s the first seizure.
  • If the seizure lasts more than 5 minutes.
  • If your loved one has difficulty breathing, is hurt, or seems sick.
  • If your loved one has another seizure right away.
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