Spotlight on Seizures
Seizures may not look the way you’d expect. Would you know how to spot a seizure? Learn how.
A seizure is a short change in normal brain activity, which can cause changes in awareness, behavior, or body movement. A person who has repeated seizures may have a brain disorder called epilepsy. Seizures can also be caused by other medical problems such as a high fever, low blood sugar, or drug or alcohol withdrawal.
Seizures are common. About 1 in 10 people may have a seizure in their lifetime.1 It’s important to be able to recognize when a seizure is happening and know how to help.
Seizures may look different from what you’d expect. In the movies and on TV, a person shown to be having a seizure typically falls to the ground, shakes, and becomes unaware of what’s going on around them. That’s one kind of seizure, but it’s not the most common. More often, a person having a seizure may seem confused, stare into space, wander, make unusual movements, or be unable to answer questions or talk. Some people with seizures have sensations such as a strange taste or smell or a “funny feeling” in their stomach.
Seizures usually stop on their own within a few minutes. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if someone is having a seizure. If you are concerned that you or a loved one could be having seizures, talk to a doctor.
New Terminology for Seizures
There are many different types of seizures. You may have heard words such as “grand mal,” “petit mal,” or “partial” to describe different types of seizures. Those terms are now outdated. Doctors have changed the way they label seizures to provide better diagnoses and treatment. Seizures are now named by where they start in the brain, how they change awareness, and how they affect the body.
There are two main types of seizures:
- Generalized seizures, which affect both sides of the brain.
- Focal seizures, which start on one side of the brain.2
Both types of seizures can:
- Affect a person’s awareness, thinking, or sensation (without any visible effect on the body).
- Cause physical symptoms or movements—like lip smacking or muscle stiffening, relaxing, or twitching.
A person with epilepsy may have both types of seizures.
How to Help
Not all seizures require emergency medical care, but it’s important to know how to help.
When someone is having a seizure:
- Remain calm and provide care and comfort.
- Time the seizure so you can track how long it lasts.
- Check for a medical identification bracelet or other emergency information to call for help, if needed.
Learn more about seizure first aid and how you can help someone during a seizure.
- Hauser WA, Annegers JF, Rocca WA. Descriptive epidemiology of epilepsy: contributions of population-based studies from Rochester, Minnesota. Mayo Clin Proc. 1996;71(6):576-586. doi:10.4065/71.6.576
- Fisher RS, Cross JH, French JA, et al. Operational classification of seizure types by the International League Against Epilepsy: position paper of the ILAE Commission for Classification and Terminology. Epilepsia. 2017;58(4):522-530. doi:10.1111/epi.13670