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What Is Epilepsy?

People who have epilepsy (say: EH-puh-lep-see) have seizures. You might also hear a seizure (say: SEE-zhur) called a convulsion, fit, or spell.

What's a Seizure?

There are different kinds of seizures, but they all happen because of unusual electrical activity in the brain. Brain cells constantly send electrical signals that travel along nerves to the rest of the body. These signals tell the muscles to move so you can do your normal activities.

What happens during a seizure depends what where in the brain the seizure happens. A person's muscles might tighten and relax quickly or stop moving. They may pass out, shake, fall down, stiffen, throw up, drool, pee, or lose bowel control. Other seizures are less noticeable. A person might just stare into space or have jerking movements in one part of the body. When the seizure is over, the person may feel sleepy and might not remember what happened.

Seizures come on suddenly and most happen without warning. Some people, though, can have a funny feeling, an upset stomach, or a weird smell or taste right before a seizure. This is called an aura. Others find that certain things may bring on a seizure, like not getting enough sleep or playing video games.

What Causes Epilepsy?

Doctors don’t always know why a person has epilepsy. Seizures can start at any age, but often they begin before age 10 or after age 55. Epilepsy is not contagious — you can't catch it from somebody. It can run in families but just because a kid's mom or dad or brother or sister has epilepsy, it doesn’t mean they will have it.

How Can Doctors Help?

If a person has a seizure, doctors may do some tests, such as a CAT scan, an MRI, or an electroencephalogram (EEG). A CAT scan or MRI helps a doctor look at the brain and an EEG records brain waves. Don't worry — these tests don't hurt at all. The doctor also might order blood tests.

These tests can help doctors try to find what caused the seizure and see if a kid might have more seizures. But sometimes seizures are a one-time thing — many kids who have one seizure never have another one.

Taking medicines can help most people control their seizures. As they get older, many kids with epilepsy get better and can stop taking medicine. But for some kids, getting their seizures under control can be hard. They might need a special diet or surgery.

What Else Should I Know?

People who have epilepsy may need to be careful in places where they could get hurt if they have a seizure, like a high place or in the bathtub. And they may not be able to do some kinds of sports, such as boxing or scuba diving.

But other than that, most people with epilepsy can live normal lives and do what everyone else does. They can go to school, attend college, and get jobs. They can get married and have children.

Even though epilepsy doesn't limit a kid's ability, it can make them feel different. So if you know somebody who has it, you can help a lot just by being a good friend.

Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
Date Reviewed: Jul 1, 2021

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