A seizure is a sudden, uncontrolled electrical disturbance in the brain. It can cause changes in your behavior, movements or feelings, and in levels of consciousness. Having two or more seizures at least 24 hours apart that aren't brought on by an identifiable cause is generally considered to be epilepsy.
There are many types of seizures, which range in symptoms and severity. Seizure types vary by where in the brain they begin and how far they spread. Most seizures last from 30 seconds to two minutes. A seizure that lasts longer than five minutes is a medical emergency.
Seizures are more common than you might think. Seizures can happen after a stroke, a closed head injury, an infection such as meningitis or another illness. Many times, though, the cause of a seizure is unknown.
Most seizure disorders can be controlled with medication, but management of seizures can still have a significant impact on your daily life. The good news is that you can work with your doctor to balance seizure control and medication side effects.
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With a seizure, signs and symptoms can range from mild to severe and vary depending on the type of seizure. Seizure signs and symptoms may include:
- Temporary confusion
- A staring spell
- Uncontrollable jerking movements of the arms and legs
- Loss of consciousness or awareness
- Cognitive or emotional symptoms, such as fear, anxiety or deja vu
Doctors generally classify seizures as either focal or generalized, based on how and where abnormal brain activity begins. Seizures may also be classified as unknown onset, if how the seizure began isn't known.
Focal seizures result from abnormal electrical activity in one area of your brain. Focal seizures can occur with or without loss of consciousness:
- Focal seizures with impaired awareness. These seizures involve a change or loss of consciousness or awareness that feels like being in a dream. You may seem awake, but you stare into space and do not respond normally to your environment or you perform repetitive movements. These may include hand rubbing, mouth movements, repeating certain words or walking in circles. You may not remember the seizure or even know that it occurred.
- Focal seizures without loss of consciousness. These seizures may alter emotions or change the way things look, smell, feel, taste or sound, but you don't lose consciousness. You may suddenly feel angry, joyful or sad. Some people have nausea or unusual feelings that are difficult to describe. These seizures may also result in difficulty speaking, involuntary jerking of a body part, such as an arm or a leg, and spontaneous sensory symptoms such as tingling, dizziness and seeing flashing lights.
Symptoms of focal seizures may be confused with other neurological disorders, such as migraine, narcolepsy or mental illness.
Seizures that appear to involve all areas of the brain are called generalized seizures. Different types of generalized seizures include:
- Absence seizures. Absence seizures, previously known as petit mal seizures, often occur in children and are characterized by staring into space or by subtle body movements, such as eye blinking or lip smacking. They usually last for five to 10 seconds but may happen up to hundreds of times per day. These seizures may occur in clusters and cause a brief loss of awareness.
- Tonic seizures. Tonic seizures cause stiffening of your muscles. These seizures usually affect muscles in your back, arms and legs and may cause you to lose consciousness and fall to the ground.
- Atonic seizures. Atonic seizures, also known as drop seizures, cause a loss of muscle control, which may cause you to suddenly collapse, fall down or drop your head.
- Clonic seizures. Clonic seizures are associated with repeated or rhythmic, jerking muscle movements. These seizures usually affect the neck, face and arms on both sides of the body.
- Myoclonic seizures. Myoclonic seizures usually appear as sudden brief jerks or twitches of your arms and legs. There is often no loss of consciousness.
- Tonic-clonic seizures. Tonic-clonic seizures, previously known as grand mal seizures, are the most dramatic type of epileptic seizure and can cause an abrupt loss of consciousness, body stiffening and shaking, and sometimes loss of bladder control or biting your tongue. They may last for several minutes.
When to see a doctor
Seek immediate medical help if any of the following occurs:
- The seizure lasts more than five minutes.
- Breathing or consciousness doesn't return after the seizure stops.
- A second seizure follows immediately.
- You have a high fever.
- You're experiencing heat exhaustion.
- You're pregnant.
- You have diabetes.
- You've injured yourself during the seizure.
If you experience a seizure for the first time, seek medical advice.
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Nerve cells (neurons) in the brain create, send and receive electrical impulses, which allow the brain's nerve cells to communicate. Anything that disrupts these communication pathways can lead to a seizure. Some types of seizure disorders may be caused by genetic mutations.
The most common cause of seizures is epilepsy. But not every person who has a seizure has epilepsy. Sometimes seizures may be caused or triggered by:
- High fever, which can be associated with an infection such as meningitis
- Lack of sleep
- Flashing lights, moving patterns or other visual stimulants
- Low blood sodium (hyponatremia), which can happen with diuretic therapy
- Medications, such as certain pain relievers, antidepressants or smoking cessation therapies, that lower the seizure threshold
- Head trauma that causes an area of bleeding in the brain
- Abnormalities of the blood vessels in the brain
- Autoimmune disorders, including systemic lupus erythematosus and multiple sclerosis
- Brain tumor
- Use of illegal or recreational drugs, such as amphetamines or cocaine
- Alcohol misuse, during times of withdrawal or extreme intoxication
- COVID-19 virus infection
Having a seizure can sometimes lead to circumstances that are dangerous for you or others. You might be at risk of:
- Falling. If you fall during a seizure, you can injure your head or break a bone.
- Drowning. If you have a seizure while swimming or bathing, you're at risk of accidental drowning.
- Car accidents. A seizure that causes loss of either awareness or control can be dangerous if you're driving a car or operating other equipment.
- Pregnancy complications. Seizures during pregnancy pose dangers to both mother and baby, and certain anti-epileptic medications increase the risk of birth defects. If you have epilepsy and plan to become pregnant, work with your doctor so that he or she can adjust your medications and monitor your pregnancy, as needed.
- Emotional health issues. People with seizures are more likely to have psychological problems, such as depression and anxiety. Problems may be a result of difficulties dealing with the condition itself as well as medication side effects.
By Mayo Clinic Staff
Feb. 24, 2021
Missed medication, lack of sleep, stress, alcohol, and menstruation are some of the most common triggers, but there are many more. Flashing lights can cause seizures in some people, but it's much less frequent than you might imagine.What are the 4 types of seizures and their symptoms? ›
Tonic: Muscles in the body become stiff. Atonic: Muscles in the body relax. Myoclonic: Short jerking in parts of the body. Clonic: Periods of shaking or jerking parts on the body.Can anxiety cause seizures? ›
Stress and anxiety can cause the physical symptoms of a seizure that are not caused by abnormal changes in the electrical activity of the brain. These seizures are known as Non-Epileptic Seizures (NES). Stress is also a trigger for people who have been diagnosed with epilepsy.Can stress cause seizures? ›
Emotional stress also can lead to seizures. Emotional stress is usually related to a situation or event that has personal meaning to you. It may be a situation in which you feel a loss of control. In particular, the kind of emotional stress that leads to most seizures is worry or fear.What happens before a seizure starts? ›
An aura or warning is the first symptom of a seizure and is considered part of the seizure. Often the aura is an indescribable feeling. Other times it's easy to recognize and may be a change in feeling, sensation, thought, or behavior that is similar each time a seizure occurs.What happens to your body when you have a seizure? ›
A seizure is a medical condition where you have a temporary, unstoppable surge of electrical activity in your brain. When that happens, the affected brain cells uncontrollably fire signals to others around them. This kind of electrical activity overloads the affected areas of your brain.What happens to the brain during a seizure? ›
In epilepsy the brain's electrical rhythms have a tendency to become imbalanced, resulting in recurrent seizures. In patients with seizures, the normal electrical pattern is disrupted by sudden and synchronized bursts of electrical energy that may briefly affect their consciousness, movements or sensations.What is the root cause of seizures? ›
Causes of epilepsy are different for each person, and some people have no identifiable cause. In others, doctors can trace epilepsy directly to genetics, brain trauma, autoimmune disorders, metabolic issues, or infectious diseases. Each cause has different signs, diagnoses, and treatment options.Where do most seizures start? ›
The temporal lobes are the areas of the brain that most commonly give rise to seizures. The mesial portion (middle) of both temporal lobes is very important in epilepsy — it is frequently the source of seizures and can be prone to damage or scarring.What vitamin deficiency causes seizures? ›
The only vitamin deficiency known to cause or worsen seizures is a deficiency of vitamin B6 (pyridoxine). This deficiency occurs mainly in newborns and infants and causes seizures that are hard to control.
Movement disorders — Tics, tremors, and other involuntary movements can look like a myoclonic seizure or focal seizure, but they may be caused by things like Tourette's syndrome, Parkinson's disorder, Huntington's disease, and other disorders that affect the brain.What is the most common seizure disorder? ›
Temporal lobe seizures, a category of focal seizures, are the most common type of epilepsy. The temporal lobe is located beneath the temples, on either side of the head.What is the most serious type of seizure? ›
A grand mal seizure causes a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions. It's the type of seizure most people picture when they think about seizures. A grand mal seizure — also known as a generalized tonic-clonic seizure — is caused by abnormal electrical activity throughout the brain.What is a stress seizure called? ›
PNES are attacks that may look like epileptic seizures but are not epileptic and instead are cause by psychological factors. Sometimes a specific traumatic event can be identified. PNES are sometimes referred to as psychogenic events, psychological events, or nonepileptic seizures (NES).What is a stress seizure? ›
Stress can cause seizures known as psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES). PNES differ from neurological seizures with causes such as epilepsy. Learn about stress's relationship to PNES, panic attacks, and more. For most people, feelings of stress are short-lived.Can MRI scan detect seizures? ›
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is the diagnostic tool that identifies structural changes in the brain that may cause seizures or be associated with epilepsy.Can dehydration cause a seizure? ›
Seizures can result from severe imbalances in electrolytes due to dehydration. Dehydration can reduce the amount of blood in the body, which can put strain on the heart and cause shock. Shock is a dangerous decrease in blood pressure, which can be fatal.What kind of drugs can cause seizures? ›
The following drugs can cause seizures or interact with seizure medications:
These can include heart palpitations, sweating, trembling and shaking, headaches, dizziness, hot flashes and chills. They are accompanied with a feeling of intense fear. Many of these symptoms can appear similar to epileptic seizures.Can doctors tell if you've had a seizure? ›
Tests for diagnosing seizures
If this is your first seizure, your doctor may want to do some scans to look at the structures in your brain. A common form of imaging is MRI. Your doctor may also want to assess how the naturally occurring activity in your brain is functioning. To do this, an EEG is performed.
Some people with seizures have noticed an aura or unusual sensation that serves as a warning signal before a seizure begins. This can come in the form of a visual disturbance, sound, or feeling of anxiety. Auras are sometimes a type of focal, or petit mal, seizure, and can be followed by a grand mal seizure.Can you tell if you have a seizure? ›
The symptoms of a seizure can vary depending on the type but may include a loss of consciousness, stiffening of the limbs, or jerking movements of the limbs. Doctors classify seizures based on whether they start in one or both sides of the brain. Seizures are changes in the brain's electrical activity.What causes seizures in adults with no history? ›
It's possible for an adult without a history of epilepsy to experience a seizure. Potential causes include central nervous system infections, brain tumors, stroke, and brain injuries. The use or stopping of certain substances, including alcohol, may also trigger a seizure.What happens if seizures go untreated? ›
The consequences of epilepsy can be quite severe and include shortened lifespan, excessive bodily injury, neuropsychological and psychiatric impairment, and social disability. There is evidence that seizures cause brain injury, including neuronal death and physiological dysfunction.How do seizures get worse? ›
Some conditions can make epilepsy worse, eg: Obstructive Sleep Apnea, strokes, head traumas, alcohol and recreational drug use. -Certain medications lower seizure threshold in brain and should be avoided in people with epilepsy, e.g.: some antibiotics including ciprofloxacin or levofloxacin.Can the brain recover after a seizure? ›
Some people recover immediately while others may take minutes to hours to feel like their usual self. The type of seizure, as well as what part of the brain the seizure impacts, affects the recovery period – how long it may last and what may occur during it.What does a seizure feel like in your head? ›
For example, if you have a mild seizure, you may stay conscious. You might also feel strange and experience tingling, anxiety, or déjà vu. If you lose consciousness during a seizure, you won't feel anything as it happens. But you might wake up feeling confused, tired, sore, or scared.How much damage do seizures do to the brain? ›
Seizures, particularly repetitive seizures, cause substantial brain damage in highly susceptible areas, such as parts of the hippocampus, entorhinal cortex, amygdala, thalamus and other limbic structures; however, neuronal death after seizures can be more widespread and is generally quite variable (e.g., [24, 77]).Are seizures a mental problem? ›
Epilepsy is not a mental illness. In fact, the vast majority of people living with epilepsy have no cognitive or psychological problem. For the most part, psychological issues in epilepsy are limited to people with severe and uncontrolled epilepsy.What is the most common cause of seizures in older adults? ›
Cerebrovascular Disease and Dementia
The most common cause of seizure activity in seniors is cerebrovascular disease, occurring more frequently as a consequence of a hemorrhagic stroke than the nonhemorrhagic type.
According to 2014 research, almost two-thirds of seizures occur between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. It's estimated that, in people with seizures: about 20 percent experience seizures during sleep. about 41 percent experience seizures during the day. about 39 percent experience seizures during the day and night.Do seizures affect memory? ›
Any type of epileptic seizure could potentially affect your memory, either during or after a seizure. If you have lots of seizures, memory problems might happen more often. Some people have generalised seizures that affect all of the brain.Can you all of a sudden have a seizure? ›
A seizure is abnormal electrical activity in the brain that happens quickly. It may go nearly unnoticed. Or, in serious cases, it may cause unconsciousness and convulsions, when your body shakes uncontrollably. Seizures usually come on suddenly.Can low vitamin D cause seizures? ›
While vitamin D deficiency in children usually presents as rickets, when severe such deficiency may result in hypocalcaemic seizures.What foods should epileptics avoid? ›
Stimulants such as tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar, sweets, soft drinks, excess salt, spices and animal proteins may trigger seizures by suddenly changing the body's metabolism. Some parents have reported that allergic reactions to certain foods (e.g. white flour) also seem to trigger seizures in their children.Can low potassium cause a seizure? ›
Unlike other electrolyte alterations, hypokalemia or hyperkalemia rarely causes symptoms in the CNS, and seizures do not occur (8). The majority of patients with mild hypokalemia (3.0 - 3.5 mmol/L) are asymptomatic and initial symptoms, when they occur, may be non-specific such as weakness or fatigue (11).What would cause a seizure all of a sudden? ›
Seizures in adults with no seizure history can be caused by a number of factors ranging from high blood pressure, drug abuse and toxic exposures to brain injury, brain infection (encephalitis) and heart disease.Why do seizures start? ›
Drugs and alcohol (this includes prescription medications, recreational drugs and even caffeine). Drug or alcohol withdrawal. Eclampsia (a condition where high blood pressure can cause seizures in pregnant people). Electrolyte problems, especially low sodium (hyponatremia), calcium or magnesium.How do you stop a seizure? ›
- medicines called anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs)
- surgery to remove a small part of the brain that's causing the seizures.
- a procedure to put a small electrical device inside the body that can help control seizures.
- a special diet (ketogenic diet) that can help control seizures.
Seizures can result from severe imbalances in electrolytes due to dehydration. Dehydration can reduce the amount of blood in the body, which can put strain on the heart and cause shock. Shock is a dangerous decrease in blood pressure, which can be fatal.
Some seizures rarely cause problems for people. Overall, the chance of injury is higher for people with uncontrolled seizures. The type of injuries a person may get depends on the type of seizure, how long the seizure lasts, where the seizure occurs, and if it develops into an emergency.What does a seizure feel like before it happens? ›
Before a seizure, you might have warning signs like a headache or tingling. After the seizure, you may feel confused, tired, or sore. Read on to learn about how having different types of seizures might feel.What drugs cause seizures? ›
The names of benzodiazepines that are most commonly used as rescue medications include diazepam, lorazepam, clonazepam, and midazolam. The availability of these medicines in different forms and how they are used may vary from country to country.What can calm down a seizure? ›
cushion their head if they're on the ground. loosen any tight clothing around their neck, such as a collar or tie, to aid breathing. turn them on to their side after their convulsions stop – read more about the recovery position. stay with them and talk to them calmly until they recover.Can drinking water prevent seizures? ›
Drinking water in between alcoholic drinks can help reduce the chances of a hangover, but will not prevent seizures from occurring.