Seizures are symptoms of a brain problem. They happen because of sudden, abnormal electrical activity in the brain.
When people think of seizures, they often think of convulsions in which a person's body shakes rapidly and uncontrollably. Not all seizures cause convulsions. There are many types of seizures and some have mild symptoms. Seizures fall into two main groups. Focal seizures, also called partial seizures, happen in just one part of the brain. Generalized seizures are a result of abnormal activity on both sides of the brain.
Most seizures last from 30 seconds to 2 minutes and do not cause lasting harm. However, it is a medical emergency if seizures last longer than 5 minutes or if a person has many seizures and does not wake up between them. Seizures can have many causes, including medicines, high fevers, head injuries and certain diseases.
Seizures of all types are caused by disorganized and sudden electrical activity in the brain.
Causes of seizures can include:
- Abnormal levels of sodium or glucose in the blood
- Brain infection, including meningitis
- Brain injury that occurs to the baby during labor or childbirth
- Brain problems that occur before birth (congenital brain defects)
- Brain tumor (rare)
- Drug abuse
- Electric shock
- Fever (particularly in young children)
- Head injury
- Heart disease
- Heat illness (heat intolerance)
- High fever
- Phenylketonuria (PKU), which can cause seizures in infants
- Street drugs, such as angel dust (PCP), cocaine, amphetamines
- Toxemia of pregnancy
- Toxin buildup in the body due to liver or kidney failure
- Very high blood pressure (malignant hypertension)
- Venomous bites and stings (snake bite)
- Withdrawal from alcohol or certain medicines after using for a long time
Sometimes, no cause can be found. This is called idiopathic seizures. They are usually seen in children and young adults, but can occur at any age. There may be a family history of epilepsy or seizures.
It may be hard to tell if someone is having a seizure. Some seizures only cause a person to have staring spells. These may go unnoticed.
Specific symptoms depend on which part of the brain is involved. Symptoms occur suddenly and may include:
- Brief blackout followed by a period of confusion (the person cannot remember for a short time)
- Changes in behavior, such as picking at one's clothing
- Drooling or frothing at the mouth
- Eye movements
- Grunting and snorting
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Mood changes, such as sudden anger, unexplainable fear, panic, joy, or laughter
- Shaking of the entire body
- Sudden falling
- Tasting a bitter or metallic flavor
- Teeth clenching
- Temporary stop in breathing
- Uncontrollable muscle spasms with twitching and jerking limbs
Symptoms may stop after a few seconds or minutes, or continue for up to 15 minutes. They rarely continue longer.
The person may have warning symptoms before the attack, such as:
- Fear or anxiety
- Vertigo (feeling as if you are spinning or moving)
- Visual symptoms (such as flashing bright lights, spots, or wavy lines before the eyes)
Most seizures stop by themselves. But during a seizure, the person can be hurt or injured.
When a seizure occurs, the main goal is to protect the person from injury:
- Try to prevent a fall. Lay the person on the ground in a safe area. Clear the area of furniture or other sharp objects.
- Cushion the person's head.
- Loosen tight clothing, especially around the neck.
- Turn the person on their side. If vomiting occurs, this helps make sure that the vomit is not inhaled into the lungs.
- Look for a medical ID bracelet with seizure instructions.
- Stay with the person until he or she recovers, or until professional medical help arrives.
Things friends and family members should not do:
- Do not restrain (try to hold down) the person.
- Do not place anything between the person's teeth during a seizure (including your fingers).
- Do not move the person unless they are in danger or near something hazardous.
- Do not try to make the person stop convulsing. They have no control over the seizure and are not aware of what is happening at the time.
- Do not give the person anything by mouth until the convulsions have stopped and the person is fully awake and alert.
- Do not start CPR unless the seizure has clearly stopped and the person is not breathing or has no pulse.