Skip to main content
You are here: Health, Conditions & Treatments > Health topics    

En Español 



What is epilepsy? Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes you to have seizures. Your brain contains many neurons (nerve cells). Normally, the neurons send small electrical signals to each other and to your body. A seizure is a sudden change in how the neurons send electrical signals. The change affects how you move, think, and feel. Your brain cannot function normally until the electrical signals return to normal.

What increases my risk for epilepsy? Epilepsy may develop at any time but is more common in early childhood and old age.

  • Brain diseases: Some conditions that affect the brain may be present at birth or develop later in life. Some examples are scar tissue in the brain, a head injury, stroke, and Alzheimer disease.

  • Congenital conditions: These are problems caused by the brain not developing normally before birth.

  • Family history: You have a greater risk of epilepsy if you have a parent or a sibling with epilepsy.

  • Infections: Bacteria and viruses can irritate the nerve cells and cause epilepsy.

  • Environmental: Toxins, such as carbon monoxide and lead, increase the risk for epilepsy.

What are the signs and symptoms of an epileptic seizure? An epileptic seizure usually lasts a few seconds to a few minutes. You may have one or more of the following:

  • Confusion

  • Wide open eyes that have a blank stare or are constantly blinking

  • Jerking of hands, legs, or face

  • Breathing that slows or stops

  • Bluish lips, nail beds, and face if your breathing is affected

  • Stiff arms or legs

  • Strange or small constant movements, such as picking at clothes or lip smacking

  • Loss of consciousness

What are the types of epileptic seizure? The type of seizure you have depends upon what part and how much of the brain is affected.

  • Generalized seizures: These seizures affect both sides of the brain. You always lose consciousness with generalized seizures.

  • Partial seizures: Partial seizures are the most common type of seizure. These are limited to a specific area of one side of the brain. You may lose consciousness.

How is epilepsy diagnosed? You may have one or more of the following tests:

  • MRI: This scan uses powerful magnets and a computer to take pictures of your brain. It will also take pictures of the blood vessels and structures in your head. You may be given dye, also called contrast, before the test. Tell caregivers if you are allergic to dye, iodine, or seafood. Remove all jewelry, and tell caregivers if you have any metal in or on your body. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell caregivers if you cannot lie still or are anxious or afraid of closed spaces.

  • CT scan: This test is also called a CAT scan. An x-ray and computer are used to take pictures of your skull and brain. You may be given dye, also called contrast, before the test. Tell the caregiver if you are allergic to dye, iodine, or seafood.

  • Lumbar puncture: This procedure may also be called a spinal tap. During a lumbar puncture, you will need to lie very still. Caregivers may give you medicine to make you lose feeling in a small area of your back. Caregivers will clean this area of your back. A needle will be put in, and fluid removed from around your spinal cord. The fluid will be sent to a lab for tests. The tests check for infection, bleeding around your brain and spinal cord, or other problems. Sometimes medicine may be put into your back to treat your illness.

  • EEG: This test is also called an electroencephalogram. Many small pads or metal discs are put on your head. Each has a wire that is hooked to a machine. This machine prints a paper tracing of brain wave activity from different parts of your brain. Caregivers look at the tracing to see how your brain is working.

  • PET scan: A PET scan shows the areas of the brain that are causing the seizures. It also shows how much blood is flowing to an area of the brain.

How is epilepsy treated?

  • Anticonvulsant medicine: This medicine is given to control seizures. Take this medicine exactly as directed.

  • Surgery: Brain surgery may be done to treat epilepsy. Ask your caregiver for more information about surgery for epilepsy.

  • Vagus nerve stimulation: A small device sends electrical energy to the brain through the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a large nerve in the neck.

What should be done for a person who is having an epileptic seizure? The following will help prevent injury:

  • Do not hold or tie the person down.

  • Do not place anything in the person's mouth or try to force his teeth apart. The person is not in danger of swallowing his tongue.

  • Do not pour any liquid into the person's mouth or offer food or medicines until he is fully awake.

  • If possible, turn the person on his side during the seizure.

  • Place something soft under the person's head, loosen tight clothing, and clear the area of sharp or hard objects.

  • Stay with the person until the seizure ends. Let him rest until he is fully awake.

  • Use a watch to time how long the seizure lasts.

  • Watch the type of movement and position of the person's head or eyes during the seizure.

Where can I get more information?

  • Epilepsy Foundation
    4351 Garden City Drive
    Landover , MD 20785-7223
    Phone: 1- 800 - 332-1000
    Web Address: http://
  • American Epilepsy Society
    342 North Main Street
    West Hartford , CT 06117-2507
    Phone: 1- 860 - 586-7505
    Web Address:

What are the risks of epilepsy?

  • Medicine used to treat epilepsy may cause slurred speech, fever, rash, clumsiness, drowsiness, or increased seizures. You could get an infection or bleed too much if you have surgery. Vagus nerve stimulation can cause hoarseness or throat discomfort.

  • If your epilepsy is not treated, your health, quality of life, and ability to function may greatly change. Epilepsy can be life-threatening.

When should I contact my caregiver? Contact your caregiver if:

  • You are depressed and feel you cannot cope with your illness.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care? Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You are confused or cannot think clearly.

  • You were injured during or after a seizure.

  • You had a second seizure soon after the first.

  • Your seizure lasted longer than 5 minutes.

  • You are having breathing problems or your lips, nail beds, and face are blue.


You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment.

© 2013 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of the Blausen Databases or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

References and sources