Spotlight on Seizures
Do you know what a seizure looks like? Learn about the many types of seizures.
A seizure is a short change in normal brain activity that can cause changes in awareness, behavior, or body movement. Because anyone can have a seizure, it’s important to recognize seizure symptoms and to know how to help. There are over 30 different types of seizures.1 The signs of seizures depend on the part of the brain affected. Some seizures are mild and can go unnoticed. Others can cause the person to fall to the ground, or be unable to move or speak.
Epilepsy is not the only cause of a seizure. Seizures can happen from other problems, including:
- Brain injury.
- High fever.
- Alcohol or drug withdrawal.
There are two groups of seizures: Generalized seizures and partial seizures.
Did you know?
There are actually over 30 types of seizures. Partial seizures are the most common type of seizure experienced by people with epilepsy.
Generalized seizures affect both sides of the brain. These words are often used when describing generalized seizures:
- Tonic: Muscles in the body become stiff, forcefully.
- Atonic: Muscles in the body relax.
- Myoclonic: Muscles in the body jerk or twitch, usually on both sides of the body.
- Clonic: Periods of jerking spasms in muscles of the body, sometimes on both sides of the body.
Tonic-clonic seizures (or what used to be called grand mal seizures) are the most well-known type of seizure. Tonic-clonic seizures can make a person:
- Cry out.
- Lose consciousness.
- Fall to the ground.
- Have muscle jerks or spasms.
The person may feel tired after a tonic-clonic seizure.
Absence seizures (or what used to be called petit mal seizures) can cause rapid eye blinking or a few seconds of staring into space.
Partial seizures are located in just one area of the brain. These seizures are also called focal seizures. There are at least three different types of partial seizures.
Simple partial seizures affect a small part of the brain. These seizures can cause jerking or a change in sensation, such as a strange taste or smell, or a “funny feeling” in the stomach.
Complex partial seizures can make a person with epilepsy confused or dazed. The person will be unable to respond to questions or direction for up to a few minutes. A person with this type of seizure may move around without purpose or direction.
Partial seizures that generalize begin in one part of the brain but then spread to both sides of the brain. In other words, the person first has a partial seizure, followed by a generalized seizure.
What do I do if I see someone having a seizure?
Not all seizures are emergencies and most will end within a few minutes. The first response is to remain calm, provide care, and comfort. Time the seizure, and check for a medical identification bracelet or other emergency information.
Learn about seizure first aid and what you can do to help during a seizure.
Read more about epilepsy and find the answers to common questions.
- The Epilepsies and Seizures: Hope through Research. National Institutes of Health Web site.Published July 17, 2015. Accessed September 15, 2015.
- Page last reviewed: October 17, 2016
- Page last updated: October 17, 2016
- Content source:
- National Center for Chronic Disease and Prevention and Health Promotion, Division of Adult and Community Health
- Page maintained by: Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs