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Frequently Asked Questions about Epilepsy

Epilepsy

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a risk of recurrent unprovoked seizures. Many different conditions or syndromes can cause epilepsy.

What is a seizure?

A seizure is change in brain activity caused by abnormal synchronous electricity in the brain waves. This abnormal electrical activity leads to changes in behavior and physical symptoms, such as convulsions.

What does a seizure look like?

Seizures can come in all shapes and forms. The most commonly known seizures include full body stiffening and jerking with alteration of consciousness. Larger convulsive seizures are called generalized tonic-clonic seizures or grand mal seizures. During grand mal seizures, patients may bite their tongue or lose control of their bowel or bladder. However, seizures can also appear as unexplained postures; staring; movements of the mouth, eyes or hands; and changes in breathing patterns. It is important to talk to your neurologist about any symptoms or changes in behavior your child is having to come to an accurate diagnosis.

My child has been diagnosed with epilepsy, now what?

Talk to your doctor about the next steps. Sometimes an initial evaluation can help determine an underlying cause. But in most cases, no single cause is identified. The first step is anti-seizure medications to help prevent the risk of further seizures.

How do I make sure my child is safe in case they have more seizures?

  • Water safety: No tub baths without direct observation by an adult. Showers only – with door unlocked. No swimming without adult supervision, and a life jacket must be worn at all times when boating or participating in any water activity.
  • Bike or scooter riding, skate boarding, horseback riding: Must wear helmet at all times.
  • Climbing: Nothing higher than 10 feet (ladders, trees). No hanging upside down from jungle gyms or other playground equipment. Avoid having sharp edges in and around your home, and look out for other dangerous home conditions. 
  • Driving: No driving, including all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), mini-bikes, four-wheelers, golf carts or any other motorized vehicle unless your healthcare provider has given prior approval. It is illegal to drive in Arizona for three months following an event of altered awareness.
  • Firearms: No hunting or handling of firearms.
  • Burns: Burns are a risk in the kitchen with hot or boiling water or hot oil, and your child may need to avoid these. Burns from hot tap water or shower water are a problem unless water heaters can be set to a safer temperature below 120°Fahrenheit. Devices such as hair curling irons or blow dryers could also increase the risk for burns and should be used with caution.
  • Tools: Power tools, lawn mowers and garden equipment may be dangerous if a person is at risk for seizures. Some hobbies could be dangerous as well. Make sure to assess the risks of a tool or task for your child, and talk to your child’s doctor or neurologist about safe alternatives and activities for your child.

There may be other risks not covered here. Talk to your child’s doctor if you have any specific questions or concerns.

What do I do when my child is having a seizure?

  • Keep calm and reassure other people who may be nearby. 
  • Prevent injury by clearing the area around the person of anything hard or sharp. 
  • Ease the person to the floor and put something soft and flat, like a folded jacket, under his or her head. 
  • Remove eyeglasses and loosen ties or anything around the neck that may make breathing difficult. 
  • Contrary to popular belief, it is not true that a person having a seizure can swallow his tongue. Do not put anything in the person’s mouth. Efforts to hold the tongue down can injure the teeth or jaw. 
  • Turn the person gently onto one side. This will help keep the airway clear. 
  • Do not hold the person down or try to stop his or her movements. 
  • Time the seizure with your watch. If the seizure continues for longer than five minutes without signs of slowing down, call 911.
  • After the seizure, if they have trouble breathing, appear to be injured or in pain, or recovery is unusual in some way, call 911.

Here are a few things you can do to help someone who is having a seizure that appears as blank staring, loss of awareness, involuntary blinking, chewing or other facial movements:

  • Stay calm and speak reassuringly. 
  • Guide him or her away from dangers. 
  • Block access to hazards, but don’t restrain the person. 
  • If the person is agitated, stay a distance away, but close enough to protect him or her until full awareness has returned.

Emergencies

Consider a seizure an emergency, and call 911 if: 

  • The seizure lasts longer than five minutes without signs of slowing down.
  • The person has trouble breathing afterwards, appears to be in pain or recovery is unusual in some way. 
  • The person has another seizure soon after the first one. 
  • The person cannot be awakened after the seizure activity has stopped. 
  • The person became injured during the seizure. 
  • The person becomes aggressive. 
  • The seizure occurs in water. 
  • The person has a health condition like diabetes or heart disease or is pregnant.

Learn more about epilepsy information and resources through the Epilepsy Foundation at epilepsy.com.
 

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