Man lying on the ground with someone kneeling next to him
Doctors describe a seizure as a sudden abnormal discharge of brain cells – a surge of electrical activity in the brain.

The Causes of Seizures and How to Cope

A seizure can be subtle or dramatic with convulsions, the person may temporarily lose consciousness, the body may jerk, twitch or go stiff, or the person may simply stare into space.

All these are forms of seizure.

If you have a friend or loved one who has seizures, it's best to learn to know how to cope. Let's look at what a seizure is, what causes seizures, what to do when a seizure occurs.

What Is a Seizure?

Doctors describe a seizure as a sudden abnormal discharge of brain cells – a surge of electrical activity in the brain. There may be too much or too little electrical activity. This causes an imbalance in brain activity. The chemical changes involved can lead to a surge of electrical activity triggering a seizure.

A seizure is usually brief. The form it takes – subtle or dramatic – will reflect the brain region when the surge occurs. Since each section of the brain controls a different behavior, each seizure is different.

Seizures are a symptom of several disorders that affect the brain. In some cases, the seizure will be barely noticed. Other seizures can be disabling. Nearly half the people who have one seizure will have another within six months.

Seizures can occur in young adults as well as infants and young children. In children, there is often no detectable cause of the seizure. Since a child's brain is still developing, seizure activity will change as they grow up.

In some cases, the seizures are symptoms of epilepsy, a neurological disorder, due to brain injury or abnormality. In other cases, seizures are associated with another set of neurological or psychological conditions.

Seizures can also be triggered by medical conditions like diabetes, including low or high blood sugar.

Coping With Seizures

Stay calm if you see someone who is having a seizure. If you can, try to time the seizure. Most last only a minute or more. If the person is pregnant – or seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes – call emergency services immediately.

A seizure can be mild or severe and affects everyone differently. It may be tough to watch. Seizures temporarily interfere with:

  • Movement
  • Muscle control
  • Vision, speech
  • Awareness.

In some cases, the person's entire body may shake violently. They may even lose consciousness. This can last from a few seconds to a few minutes.

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You may feel helpless, but you can help in many ways.

How to Help During a Seizure

  • Protect the person from injury.
  • Try to prevent falling; guide the person gently to the floor.
  • Move furniture or other objects that might cause injury.
  • Do not force your fingers or anything else into the person's mouth.
  • Do not try to hold down the person.

Helping After a Seizure

  • Turn the person on their right or left side. This allows fluid to leak out of the mouth.
  • Use your finger to gently remove any vomit or saliva from the person's mouth, if necessary, to promote breathing. If this does not work, call for emergency help.
  • Loosen any tight clothing around the person's neck and waist.
  • Provide a safe area so the person can rest.
  • Do not offer anything to eat or drink until the person is fully awake and alert.

Things to Watch for During a Seizure

You can provide valuable information to the doctor. Try to remember:

  • How the person acted before the seizure.
  • How the person's body moved during the seizure.
  • How long the seizure lasted.
  • How the person acted after the seizure.
  • Whether the person had any injuries during the seizure.

When to Seek Emergency Help

In many cases, seizures do not require urgent care. But call 911 immediately if:

  • Breathing stops longer than 30 seconds. (Begin rescue breathing after calling).
  • The seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes.
  • A person is pregnant.
  • More than one seizure occurs within 24 hours.
  • A person does not normally respond within 1 hour.
  • A person has new symptoms, such as trouble speaking, thinking clearly or walking.
  • A person has a fever.
  • A seizure occurs following a sudden, severe headache.
  • The seizure follows a head injury.
  • A person with diabetes has a seizure. Low or very high blood sugar can be the cause.
  • A seizure occurs after toxic fumes or eating poison.
  • The person complains of severe pain after waking up or develops a fever within 24 hours of the seizure.

Stay with the person until they are awake and familiar with the surroundings. Very often, they will be sleepy or confused following a seizure.

If you need to be prepared for a seizure in someone you love, read this article a second or third time to ensure you know exactly what to do when a seizure occurs. Seizures can be relatively upsetting to witness, but you can help control the situation.