Frequently Asked Questions
What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy, which is sometimes called a seizure disorder, is a disorder of the brain. A person is diagnosed with epilepsy when they have had two or more seizures.
Read more about epilepsy here.
What is a seizure?
A seizure is a short change in normal brain activity.
Seizures are the main sign of epilepsy. Some seizures can look like staring spells. Other seizures cause a person to fall, shake, and lose awareness of what’s going on around them.
Read more about seizures here.
If I have a seizure, does that mean I have epilepsy?
Not always. Seizures can also happen because of other medical problems. These problems include:
- A high fever.
- Low blood sugar.
- Alcohol or drug withdrawal.
Read more about the causes of epilepsy here.
What causes epilepsy?
Epilepsy can be caused by different conditions that affect a person’s brain. Some known causes include:
- Brain tumor.
- Brain infection, like neurocysticercosis.
- Traumatic brain injury or head injury.
- Loss of oxygen to the brain (for example, during birth).
- Some genetic disorders (such as Down syndrome).
- Other neurologic diseases (such as Alzheimer’s Disease).
For 2 in 3 people, the cause of epilepsy is unknown. This type of epilepsy is called cryptogenic or idiopathic.
Read more about the causes of epilepsy here.
Is epilepsy common?
Epilepsy is one of the most common conditions affecting the brain.
How can I prevent epilepsy?
Sometimes we can prevent epilepsy. These are some of the most common ways to reduce your risk of developing epilepsy:
- Have a healthy pregnancy. Some problems during pregnancy and childbirth may lead to epilepsy. Follow a prenatal care plan with your health care provider to keep you and your baby healthy.
- Prevent brain injuries.
- Lower the chances of stroke and heart disease.
- Be up-to-date on your vaccinations.
- Wash your hands and prepare food safely to prevent infections such as cysticercosis.
How is epilepsy diagnosed?
A person who has a seizure for the first time should talk to a health care provider, such as a doctor or nurse practitioner. The provider will talk to the person about what happened, and look for the cause of the seizure. Many people who have seizures take tests such as brain scans for a closer look at what is going on. These tests do not hurt.
Read more about epilepsy diagnostic tests and tools here.
How is epilepsy treated?
There are many things a provider and person with epilepsy can do to stop or lessen seizures.
The most common treatments for epilepsy are:
- Medicine. Anti-seizure drugs are medicines that limit the spread of seizures in the brain. A health care provider will change the amount of the medicine or prescribe a new drug if needed to find the best treatment plan. Medicines work for about 2 in 3 people with epilepsy.
- Surgery. When seizures come from a single area of the brain (focal seizures), surgery to remove that area may stop future seizures or make them easier to control with medicine. Epilepsy surgery is mostly used when the seizure focus is located in the temporal lobe of the brain.
- Other treatments. When medicines do not work and surgery is not possible, other treatments can help. These include vagus nerve stimulation, where an electrical device is placed, or implanted, under the skin on the upper chest to send signals to a large nerve in the neck. Another option is the ketogenic diet, a high fat, low carbohydrate diet with limited calories.
Read more about epilepsy treatments here.
What can I do to manage my epilepsy?
Self-management is what you do to take care of yourself. You can learn how to manage seizures and keep an active and full life. Begin with these tips:
- Take your medicine.
- Talk with your doctor or nurse when you have questions.
- Recognize seizure triggers (such as flashing or bright lights).
- Keep a record of your seizures.
- Get enough sleep.
- Lower stress.
Read more about epilepsy medications here.
Are there special concerns for women who have epilepsy?
Women who have epilepsy face special challenges. Hormonal changes can cause some women with epilepsy to have more seizures during their period.
For women with epilepsy, there are also special concerns about pregnancy, because having a seizure and taking certain drugs during pregnancy may increase the risk of harm to the baby. Women can take the following steps before and during pregnancy to lessen these risks.
If you are a woman with epilepsy who plans to get pregnant, talk with your health team about how to best care for yourself and your baby.
Read more about epilepsy in women here.
Can a person die from epilepsy?
Most people with epilepsy live a full life. However, the risk of early death is higher for some. We know that the best possible seizure control and living safely can reduce the risk of epilepsy-related death.
Factors that increase the risk of early death include:
More serious health problems, such as a stroke or a tumor. These conditions carry an increased risk of death and may cause seizures.
Falls or other injuries that happen because of seizures. These injuries can be life-threatening.
Seizures that last over 5 minutes. This is a condition called status epilepticus. Status epilepticus can sometimes happen when a person suddenly stops taking seizure medication.
Rarely, people with epilepsy can experience sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP). SUDEP is not well understood and experts don’t know what causes it, but they suspect that it is sometimes due to a change in heart beats (rhythm) during a seizure. Sudden death due to heart rhythm changes also happens in people who do not have seizures.
The risk of sudden death is larger for people with major uncontrolled seizures.
Read more about SUDEP here.