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Seizures

Seizures

Topic Overview

The brain controls how the body moves by sending out small electrical signals through the nerves to the muscles. Seizures , or convulsions, occur when abnormal signals from the brain change the way the body functions.

Seizures are different from person to person. Some people have only slight shaking of a hand and do not lose consciousness. Other people may become unconscious and have violent shaking of the entire body.

Shaking of the body, either mild or violent, does not always occur with seizures. Some people who have seizures have symptoms before the seizure (auras) or briefly lose touch with their surroundings and appear to stare into space. Although the person is awake, he or she does not respond normally. Afterwards, the person does not remember the episode.

Not all body shaking is caused by seizures. Many medical conditions can cause a type of body shaking that usually affects the hands and head ( tremors ).

A small number of people will have only one seizure during their lifetime. A single seizure usually lasts less than 3 minutes and is not followed by a second seizure. Any normally healthy person can have a single seizure under certain conditions. For instance, a sharp blow to the head may cause a seizure. Having one seizure does not always mean that a serious health problem exists. But if you have a first-time seizure, you should be checked by your doctor. It is important to rule out a serious illness that may have caused the seizure. Fever seizures (febrile convulsions) are the most common cause of a single seizure, especially in children. For more information, see the topic Fever Seizures.

Causes of seizures

Epilepsy is a nervous system problem that causes seizures. It can develop at any age. For more information, see the topic Epilepsy.

A seizure can be a symptom of another health problem, such as:

Eclampsia is pregnancy-related seizure activity that is usually caused by high blood pressure. It is a life-threatening condition for both a mother and her baby (fetus) because during a seizure, the fetus's oxygen supply is drastically reduced. Eclampsia is more likely to occur after the 20th week of pregnancy. For more information, see the topic Preeclampsia and High Blood Pressure During Pregnancy.

Nonepileptic seizure (NES) is a condition that can cause seizure-like activity. NES is characterized by a loss of or change in physical function without a central nervous system problem. The loss or change causes periods of physical activity or inactivity that resemble epileptic seizures. NES can be related to a mental health problem. The physical symptoms may be caused by emotional conflicts or stress. The symptoms usually appear suddenly and at times of extreme emotional stress.

Protect a person during a seizure

No matter what caused the seizure, you can help the person having a seizure.

A person who has had a seizure should not drive, swim, climb ladders, or operate machinery until he or she has seen a doctor about the seizure.

Treatment

Treatment of a seizure depends on what has caused the seizure.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

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  Epilepsy: Taking Your Medicines Properly

Check Your Symptoms

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Home Treatment

If you witness a seizure , your account of the seizure will help a doctor diagnose and treat the person. Try to stay calm. Pay close attention to what happens during and after the seizure.

  • During a seizure:
    • Protect the person from injury.
      • Keep him or her from falling if you can, or try to guide the person gently to the floor.
      • Try to move furniture or other objects that might injure the person during the seizure.
      • If the person is having a seizure and is on the ground when you arrive, put something soft under his or her head.
    • Do not force anything, including your fingers, into the person's mouth. Putting something in the person's mouth may cause injuries to him or her, such as chipped teeth or a fractured jaw. You could also get bitten.
    • Turn the person onto his or her side, with the mouth down, unless the person resists being moved.
    • Do not try to hold down or move the person.
    • Try to stay calm.
    • If the person vomits, turn the person onto his or her side.
    • Pay close attention to what the person is doing so that you can describe the seizure to rescue personnel or doctors.
      • What kind of body movement occurred?
      • How long did the seizure last?
      • How did the person act immediately after the seizure?
      • Are there any injuries from the seizure?
    • Time the length of the seizure, if possible.
  • After a seizure:
    • Check the person for injuries.
    • If you could not turn the person onto his or her side during the seizure, do so when the seizure ends and the person is more relaxed.
    • If the person is having trouble breathing, use your finger to gently clear his or her mouth of any vomit or saliva.
    • Loosen tight clothing around the person's neck and waist.
    • Provide a safe area where the person can rest.
    • Do not give anything to eat or drink until the person is fully awake and alert.
    • Stay with the person until he or she is awake and familiar with the surroundings. Most people will be sleepy or confused after a seizure.

A person who has had a seizure should not drive, swim, climb ladders, or operate machinery until he or she has seen a doctor about the seizure and the doctor has said that the person is allowed to drive or operate machinery.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • A second seizure occurs.
  • The pattern of your seizures changes and you have a history of epilepsy.
  • Symptoms become more severe or frequent.

Prevention

Note: If you think you may have a seizure disorder or are being evaluated for one, do not drive, operate heavy machinery, swim, climb ladders, or participate in other potentially dangerous activities until you have been specifically cleared to do these things by your doctor.

Many causes of seizures , such as some forms of epilepsy , cannot be prevented. But head injury is a common cause of seizures and epilepsy that you may be able to prevent. To prevent a head injury:

  • Wear your seat belt when you are in a motor vehicle. Use child car seats.
  • Do not use alcohol or other drugs before or during sports (such as soccer, football, horseback riding, or bicycling) or when operating an automobile or other equipment.
  • Wear a helmet and other protective clothing whenever you are bicycling, motorcycling, skating, kayaking, horseback riding, skiing, snowboarding, or rock climbing.
  • Wear a hard hat if you work in an industrial or construction area.
  • Do not dive into shallow or unfamiliar water.
  • Prevent falls at home by removing hazards that might cause a fall.

If you are being treated for a seizure disorder:

  • Be sure to follow your treatment plan. Taking too little or too much of your medicine, abruptly stopping your medicine, or changing your medicine schedule can cause seizures.
    Click here to view an Actionset. Epilepsy: Taking Your Medicines Properly
  • Do not drive, operate heavy machinery, swim, climb ladders, or participate in other potentially dangerous activities until you have been specifically cleared to do these things by your doctor.
  • Avoid activities that might trigger a seizure, such as playing video games that have flashing or flickering lights. In rare cases, the flashing lights and geometric patterns of video games can trigger seizures in children.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • How was your health and behavior before the seizure?
  • Did you have any unusual symptoms before the seizure (aura)?
  • What happened during the seizure? Ask the person who witnessed your seizure to either record this information for you or come to your doctor's appointment with you.
    • What kind of body movement occurred?
    • How long did the seizure last?
    • How did the person act immediately after the seizure?
    • Are there any injuries from the seizure?
  • Have you ever had a seizure before? If so, what was the diagnosis and how were the seizures treated?
  • If you have epilepsy:
    • What seizure medicines have been prescribed?
    • Has the dosage of your seizure medicine changed recently?
    • Have you taken your seizure medicine exactly as prescribed?
    • Have you taken other prescription or nonprescription medicines or consumed alcohol recently?
    • Have you used any alternative medicine products recently?
    • When was your last seizure?
    • On the average, how often do you have a seizure?
  • Have you had other health problems in the past 3 months?
  • Have you ever had a concussion (traumatic brain injury) in the past?
    • How long ago?
    • How severe was it?
    • Did you lose consciousness ?
    • What tests were used to evaluate your head injury?
  • Have you had problems with headaches?
  • Have you recently taken, stopped taking, or changed the dose of any medicines, including nonprescription medicines or illegal drugs ?
  • Have you suddenly reduced or stopped drinking alcohol?
  • Have you recently traveled to a rural area or an undeveloped country?
  • Do you have any health risks that may increase the seriousness of your symptoms?

If possible, ask the person who witnessed your seizure to come to your doctor's appointment with you. Be sure to ask your doctor what you can do to prevent another seizure and what to do if you have another seizure.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised May 8, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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