Skip to Content
Also part of the UPMC family:

Seizure Safety: How to Help Your Loved One with Epilepsy

If you have ever witnessed someone having a seizure, it is very frightening. How can you help them? What should you do? It is important to first understand the difference between epilepsy and seizures.

Epilepsy is a chronic condition that causes repeated, unprovoked seizures. The seizures are caused by bursts of electrical activity in the brain that aren't normal. Seizures may cause problems with muscle control, movement, speech, vision, or awareness.

They usually don't last very long, but they can be scary. The good news is there are many ways to manage epilepsy and reduce or eliminate seizures.

What Are the Symptoms of Epilepsy?

Seizures and epilepsy are not the same. A seizure is an event and epilepsy is the disease involving recurrent unprovoked seizures.

Symptoms can vary depending on the type of seizure you have. Common seizure symptoms include:

  • Staring blankly for a few seconds
  • Involuntary twitching of arms and legs (called a clonic seizure)
  • Temporary confusion
  • Muscles stiffen and loss of consciousness or awareness (called a tonic seizure)

A person is considered to have epilepsy if they had two or more seizure without obvious triggers at least 24 hours apart.

Some children will outgrow epilepsy. It is considered to be resolved for individuals who have remained seizure-free for the last 10 years, with no seizure medicines for the last five years.

Diagnosing Epilepsy

After reviewing your medical history and symptoms, your doctor may order or perform several tests to diagnose epilepsy or a seizure, including:

  • Neurological exam. During a neurological exam, your doctor will evaluate your thinking and memory skills, as well as your balance, motor skills, and reflexes.
  • Imaging tests. Your doctor may order imaging exams, such as an x-ray, MRI, PET, or CT scan, to check for problems.

Seizure MRI 

Top views of the brain show normal tissue and abnormal tissue  that causes seizures.

Treatment of Epilepsy

Treatment of epilepsy can include prescription medications to help control the seizures. However, the treatment of epilepsy is based on your individual health history. If you think your child may have epilepsy, it is important to discuss your child’s treatment plan with their provider so your child can live as normally as possible. Other treatments can include nerve stimulation, surgery, and alternative medicines.

Epilepsy is often associated with other health problems, including depression, anxiety, migraine headaches, and obesity. If you experience other symptoms, it is important to share them with your provider.

Who Is at Risk for Epilepsy?

Anyone can develop epilepsy. It affects men and women of all ages, races, and ethnic backgrounds. However, genetic factors, head injuries, and conditions that affect the brain, such as stroke, meningitis, dementia, brain tumors, and viral encephalitis, may increase your risk of developing epilepsy.

How Can I Prevent Epilepsy?

Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to prevent epilepsy. You can avoid seizure triggers to improve seizure control. If you have epilepsy, it is important to always take your medication as prescribed by your provider. You can also purchase identification jewelry that lets emergency personnel, friends, and family know that you suffer from epilepsy and provide instructions on how to help you through the seizure.

What to Do When a Seizure Occurs

When a seizure does occur, here are steps that you can take to prevent further injury:

  • Lay the person down on his or her side
  • Place a cushion under the person’s head
  • Loosen the person’s clothing, especially around the neck
  • Check for a medical ID bracelet for special instructions
  • Monitor the person’s vital signs
  • Stay with the person until emergency personnel arrive

You should NOT try to restrain the person, place anything in the person’s mouth, or try to move the person.

How to Help Someone During a Seizure

What is Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy?

SUDEP (Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy) is responsible for about half of all deaths related to epilepsy. It occurs at about a rate of one in 1,000 epileptic patients per year, but the risk becomes cumulative over an individual's lifetime, with a 5 percent chance of it killing someone with epilepsy over the course of their lives if they develop epilepsy in their 20s to 30s.

We don't know exactly what causes it, but it's thought to be related to a suppressed drive to breathe following a seizure. If you are with someone after a seizure and you notice they are not breathing, it's important to keep calling their name and rubbing their chest vigorously to try to get them to breathe, and remind them to keep breathing as they are waking up from their seizure.

Factors that greatly increase the risk of SUDEP are on-going seizures, especially generalized tonic clonic, formally known as Grand Mal, seizures. This is why strict adherence to anti-seizure medications is so important, as well as getting consistent sleep to minimize risk of seizures. If a patient still has seizures despite medications, it's important to discuss other surgical options. Having a bed partner, or a monitoring device at bedtime if the patient sleeps alone, have been shown to decrease the risk of SUDEP.

If you are having seizures and think you may have epilepsy, talk to your primary care provider. He or she can refer you to experienced neurologist should you need further testing.

Epilepsy and Sleep

Being deprived of sleep is not good for anyone. It can affect your moods, your motor skills, and your immune system. Lack of sleep can also lead to an increase in seizure activity if you have epilepsy. Many times, sleep disorders or sleepiness is common in people with epilepsy. To avoid these unhealthy and potentially dangerous consequences, here are steps to help you get a proper, restful sleep without taking sleep-aid medications.

Helping Your Child Prevent and Manage Seizures

5 Ways to Help You Get a Good Night’s Sleep

  • Maintain a routine. Routines are beneficial for getting a good night’s sleep. If you go to bed at the same time each night, your body’s internal clock will adjust to that time, ensuring that you get a full eight hours of sleep.
  • Don’t use electronic technology before bed. These technologies include cell phones, computers and anything else that has a bright screen. Though it may seem mind-numbing and relaxing, using these forms of technology as a “go-to-sleep ritual” actually does the opposite. The light from the screen stimulates and awakens activity in your brain, making it more difficult to get a full and restful night’s sleep.
  • Don’t drink caffeine after 5 p.m. Caffeine is a stimulant and it keeps your brain awake, even hours after having consumed it. Caffeine and foods with high sugar content may seem like a good idea. But if you are trying to get restful sleep, they may be some of the worst things you could have in the afternoon or evening. Caffeine reduces the total sleep time and increases the number of arousals from sleep.
  • Exercise. Not only is exercise good for keeping a healthy lifestyle, but it is also good for helping you sleep. If you have an exhausting workout, you are more likely to crash and fall asleep at night, giving you a solid, restorative sleep.
  • Use breathing exercises. Deep breathing exercises can help calm your mind and help you be relaxed and comfortable. These can help you get to sleep faster and stay asleep.

For more information about epilepsy and seizures, please visit us online.

UPMC Central Pa. Portal

UPMC Central Pa. Portal provides patients across the central Pennsylvania region with secure access to their health information. It is the fastest way to send a message to your doctor, refill prescriptions, get test results, and schedule and manage appointments, including video visits.

Log-In or Sign Up Today

Contact UPMC

When it comes to health care for you and your family, UPMC is here. It's easy to find the right doctor, health screenings and programs, classes and more.

Contact