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Understanding Epilepsy – What to Do If Someone You Love Has a Seizure

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Witnessing a seizure can be a frightening experience, yet for the 3 million adults and the 470,000 children in the United States who live with epilepsy, it’s a possibility that could strike without warning at any time. About one in ten people will have a seizure during their lifetime, which means the threat is real for all of us. Some of the most common causes of epilepsy include stroke, a brain tumor, a brain infection caused by a parasite, a traumatic brain injury, loss of oxygen to the brain, some genetic disorders such as Down syndrome, and other neurologic diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. If someone in your life has been diagnosed with epilepsy or is at risk of experiencing a seizure at any time, prepare yourself to aid your loved one and protect both you and them by familiarizing yourself with the best practices for assisting someone having a seizure.

What is Epilepsy?

Sometimes referred to as seizure disorder, epilepsy is a brain disorder. A doctor might diagnose a patient who has had two or more seizures in their lifetime as having epilepsy.

What is a Seizure?

A seizure is a brief change in regular brain activity. In some cases, a patient may appear to be staring intently without other movement or response. In more disturbing situations, a patient may collapse to the grown, become disoriented, and physically shake or convulse.

Are Seizures Dangerous?

In most cases, a seizure will end on its own and will not cause any severe health issues. One of the most significant risks that seizures pose is that the patient may injure themselves falling or convulsing. They might also cause an accident if they experience a seizure while operating a motor vehicle, or could be at risk of drowning if they have an episode while swimming or in the bath. They might also experience other medical complications, and in the most severe cases, they might experience a life-threatening emergency. For example, they could choke on vomit or other fluids during a seizure if they collapse on their back.

A seizure might also cause loss of life if it lasts more than five minutes—a condition called status epilepticus, tonic-clonic status epilepticus, tonic-clonic seizure, or a grand mal seizure—or they experience multiple episodes one after another. Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) is the most common cause of death for people with seizures. While uncommon, SUDEP is a dangerous possibility, and all those with epilepsy—and their loved ones—should treat every epileptic episode with precaution.

What to Do When Someone is Having a Seizure

If someone in your life is at risk of seizures, and you are present when they experience one, remain calm. Call 911 if any of the following potentially life-threatening events occurs:

  • It is the individual’s first seizure
  • They are having difficulty breathing or waking up after the event
  • The seizure lasts more than 5 minutes
  • They have another seizure soon after the first
  • They become injured during the seizure
  • It occurs in water
  • The person has another health condition that could cause a complication, such as heart disease or diabetes, or they are pregnant

In addition to calling emergency responders if necessary, you can assist someone having a seizure by doing the following:

  • If they are experiencing a grand mal seizure, ease them to the floor and turn them onto their side to help them breathe and to prevent choking on fluids
  • Clear the area around the person to ensure it is free of anything dangerous, sharp, or hard that could injure them during convulsions
  • Put something soft under their head to prevent a head injury
  • Remove eyeglasses if necessary
  • Loosen anything that might be restrictive from around their neck such as jewelry or scarves
  • Stay with them until the seizure ends, and they wake up
  • When they can communicate, seat them in a safe place and calmly communicate what occurred
  • Be comforting and calming
  • Take them home if needed once you can safely transport them

What Not to Do When Someone is Having a Seizure

If you are present when someone you love has a seizure, do not do any of the following, which could put yourself or them in further danger:

  • Do not attempt to hold them down
  • Do not put anything in their mouth in an attempt to prevent choking, as it might injure their jaw or teeth
  • Do not try to administer CPR; if the patient does not resume breathing on their own when the seizure ends, call 911
  • Do not offer them food or water until they are fully recovered and alert

In many cases, seizures are more frightening than they are deadly. Still, practice all proper precautions and get help when necessary to help minimize your loved one’s chances of a dangerous health complication. If you believe that you or someone you love might have epilepsy, talk to your doctor. Do not wait for a potentially perilous life event to get help.