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
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.What are early warning signs of a seizure? ›
Nausea or headache. A feeling of déjà vu — a feeling of having already experienced the present situation even though you haven't experienced it before. Sudden strong emotional changes like joy, sadness, fear, or anger. Muscle twitches or jerking movements on one side of the body.What are the 4 types of seizures? ›
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.What are the 3 signs of a seizure? ›
Seizures symptoms vary and can include a sudden change in awareness or full loss of consciousness, unusual sensations or thoughts, involuntary twitching or stiffness in the body or severe stiffening and limb shaking with loss of consciousness (a convulsion.)Are seizures very serious? ›
Generally speaking, a generalized tonic-clonic seizure lasting 5 minutes or longer is a medical emergency. If seizures can't be stopped or repeated seizures occur one right after another, permanent injury or death can occur.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.
A simple partial seizure can cause: a general strange feeling that's hard to describe. a "rising" feeling in your tummy – like the sensation in your stomach when on a fairground ride. a feeling that events have happened before (déjà vu)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 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. The type of seizure depends on the cause.Do you know when a seizure is happening? ›
People with partial seizures may experience the following signs seconds or minutes before the actual seizure: Unusual smells, tastes, sounds, or sensations. Nausea. A Déjà vu feeling (you feel like you are experiencing something that has occurred before)
Once the seizure is over, Kadiwala recommends the patient be taken to the emergency room to rule out any serious medical problems. “Anyone who experiences their first seizure should be taken to the ER right away,” he explains. “The purpose of an ER visit is to rule out any immediate or life-threatening.Do seizures mean brain damage? ›
Although scientists and clinicians have long known that prolonged seizures, a condition referred to as "status epilepticus," kill brain cells, surprisingly little scientific evidence exists to support the notion that individual seizures do damage.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.
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.What stops seizures fast? ›
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.Can drinking water prevent seizures? ›
Keep your fluids topped up all the time. Dehydration can make it more likely for you to have a seizure. This is particularly important when you are exercising.Is a seizure a mini stroke? ›
In short, no. While a stroke can lead to seizures, seizures don't lead to strokes. But right after someone has a seizure, they can have symptoms that look like a stroke. The medical term for this is Todd's paralysis.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.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.What is the aftermath of a seizure? ›
More than 70% of people with epilepsy report post-ictal (after-seizure) complications, including confusion, fear, exhaustion, headache, emotional reactivity, memory problems and behavioral changes. Some last an hour; others can last for days.
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 type of seizures cause brain damage? ›
Status epilepticus happens when a seizure lasts for more than five minutes, or you have more than one seizure without enough time between to recover. Status epilepticus is a life-threatening medical emergency because it can cause brain damage or even death.What is the most life threatening type of seizure? ›
A seizure that lasts longer than 5 minutes, or having more than 1 seizure within a 5 minutes period, without returning to a normal level of consciousness between episodes is called status epilepticus. This is a medical emergency that may lead to permanent brain damage or death.What is the most common seizure? ›
Generalized Tonic Clonic Seizures — Also known as a convulsion, this is the most common and easily recognized kind of generalized seizure.What is a fatal seizure called? ›
SUDEP stands for Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy. It refers to deaths in people with epilepsy that are not from injury, drowning, or other known causes. 1. Most, but not all, cases of SUDEP happen during or right after a seizure. 1.Which type of seizure is considered an emergency? ›
Only call 911 if one or more of these are true: The person has never had a seizure before. The person has difficulty breathing or waking after the seizure. The seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes.