What You Should Know About Seizures

Despite greater public awareness, misconceptions persist

Young woman lying on the floor
Peter Glass/Getty Images

When people hear the word seizure, they usually imagine someone who has collapsed and is in the throes of painful convulsions. And while it's true that some will experience these types of symptoms, it's not always the case.

There are, in fact, a lot of misconceptions people have about seizures, including what causes them and what you can do if someone experiences one. Here are six simple facts that may help explain not only what seizures are but what they are not:

1. Seizures Are Not Contagious

A seizure can be a very frightening experience, so much so that people's natural reaction is to move away. In some cases, it may be because a person fears that seizures are somehow contagious. As odd as this may seem, a survey conducted by the Epilepsy Foundation in 2001 revealed that, among 19,000 people interviewed, around half of those under 18 remained uncertain as to whether you could actually "catch" epilepsy.

The bottom line is that: seizures are not contagious, and you cannot "catch" or "spread" epilepsy by coming into contact who has had one.

You Can Have a Seizure at Any Age
Seizures can occur from infancy right through to the later years of life. Babies are especially vulnerable to seizures when faced with otherwise uncomplicated abnormalities such as a fever (pyrexia) or drinking too much water (that latter of which flushes too much sodium from the body and disrupts brain activity).

On the flip side, seizures remain a common feature of aging-related neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. Among older adults who have had a stroke, around 10 percent with a hemorrhagic stroke (a brain bleed) and eight percent with an ischemic stroke (involving a blocked blood vessel) will experience one or more seizures. All told, around one of every 20 persons living to the age of 80 will have a seizure.

2. Anyone Can Have a Seizure

There are some who believe that seizures and epilepsy are one and the same thing. A seizure, by definition, is a transient event caused by excessive or non-synchronous brain activity. Epilepsy, by contrast, is a medical condition characterized by the recurrence of seizures. As such, a seizure is a symptom of the disease epilepsy.

Seizures are also the symptom of many other conditions that can strike non-epileptics, including:

  • Vitamin B1, B6, and B12 deficiency
  • Head injury
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Brain tumor
  • Encephalitis or meningitis
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Malnutrition
  • Pharmaceutical drugs such as corticosteroids, estrogen, lidocaine, propofol, and insulin when used incorrectly or in excess
  • Recreational drugs such as MDMA, methamphetamines, and cocaine
  • Drug withdrawal

3. There Are Different Types of Seizures

A seizure is sometimes traumatically apparent. At other times, it may be barely noticed. A classic tonic-clonic seizure is the type most of us recognize from TV where a person will experience the jerking and stiffening of the entire body. By contrast, an absence seizure may cause a person to suddenly "blank out" for a moment before return to full consciousness. There is even a type called an atonic seizure where a body part will suddenly go limp or the head will suddenly drop for several seconds.

4. You Can Have More Than One Type of Seizure

Broadly speaking, there are three categories of seizure that a person can experience:

  • Generalized onset seizures are those which affect both sides of the brain at once and can include such a tonic-clonic, absence, and atonic seizures.
  • Focal onset awareness seizures typically affect one side of the brain and occur when the person is fully aware and awake.
  • Focal onset impaired awareness seizures also affect one side of the brain but can causes gaps in consciousness.

While an epileptic may experience only one type of seizure, it is possible to be affected by several. In such a case, an individual may require different forms of treatment to control the different types of seizures.

5. You May Not Need to Take Medication for Your Seizures

While treatment is common for people coping with epilepsy, those experiencing incidental seizures usually don't need treatment. Instead, doctors will more often treat the underlying cause whether it be a fever, an imbalance of electrolytes or blood sugar, or a drug-related event.

On the other hand, persons with a serious neurological disorder will often require antiepileptic drugs to control recurrent seizures. This is especially true for people with brain cancer, 60 percent of whom will experience a seizure as a result of a malignancy or neurosurgery.

6. Treatment Is Widely Varied for Seizures

There is not one drug used to control seizures. Antiepileptics are a diverse group of medications that have different mechanisms of action. The drugs are prescribed based on the types of seizures you are experiencing, including:

  • Absence seizures
  • Atonic seizures
  • Cluster seizures, happening repeatedly over hours or days
  • Episodic ("partial") seizures
  • Infantile seizures
  • Menstrual-related (catamenial) seizures
  • Myoclonic seizures, characterized by involuntary muscle spasms
  • Tonic-clonic seizures

There are more than 25 anti-epileptic drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of seizures. Research suggests that 70 percent of people with epilepsy could have their seizures completely controlled with the use of these medications.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • Institute of Medicine. (2012) Epilepsy Across the Spectrum: Promoting Health and Understanding. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.