Epilepsy — a common neurological disorder characterised by recurrent seizures — affects about 250,000 Australians and millions more worldwide. It can affect a person of any age, gender or background.
So, it's pretty likely that you already know someone living with epilepsy.
But not all seizures are caused by epilepsy, so you may still see someone having a seizure at some point in your lifetime.
Here's what you need to know about seizures (sometimes called a 'fit', or convulsions), and what to do when someone has one.
What causes a seizure?
Yes, seizures can be caused by epilepsy but there are other causes, including very low blood sugar, high fever, head injury or recreational drugs, for example.
The brain controls everything you do by sending messages — like little electrical signals — to and from your body to make you move, feel, think or react.
A seizure occurs when the brain cells send mixed-up messages, which stops a person's body from working properly for a short time. There are many types of seizure; here are 3 common ones:
Tonic clonic seizure
The person suddenly loses consciousness (or, 'blacks out') then becomes stiff all over and their body makes jerking movements. When the seizure is over, they may be confused, sore and fatigued. This can be quite distressing or frightening for someone who has never witnessed a seizure before.
The person might be confused or look like they're sleepwalking. They might do strange things, make strange sounds or repeat movements over and over. This type of seizure can vary a lot between individuals.
Seen in children more than in adults, absence seizures can be short and look like daydreaming. The person will suddenly stop what they're doing and stare for a few seconds. They won't remember anything that happens during the seizure and it can occur several times a day.
What to do if someone has a seizure
Remember these tips if you are with someone when they have a seizure.
- Stay calm.
- Keep the person safe — move anything away that is sharp or hard that could cause injury.
- Only move the person if they are in danger (e.g. on a road or hot concrete). You might need help with this.
- Put something soft under the person's head, if you can.
- Time the seizure — or estimate the time if you don't have a watch or phone.
- Do not try to hold the person down.
- Do not put anything in the person's mouth.
- After a seizure, if the person is on the ground, roll them onto their side in the recovery position.
- Stay with the person after the seizure stops. Don't wake them up but do check their breathing. Talk to them once they're awake.
- In most cases, you do not need to call an ambulance. However, do call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance if:
- you are unsure about anything
- the seizure happens in water
- the person is injured
- the person has diabetes or is pregnant
- the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes
- the person is unresponsive for more than 5 minutes after the seizure stops
- they have another seizure
- the person can't breathe properly
- you believe this is the first seizure they've ever had
For more information
Tuesday March 26 is Purple Day, a global initiative dedicated to raising epilepsy awareness. If you'd like to know how you can get involved or learn more about this common condition, visit Epilepsy Action Australia or the Epilepsy Foundation.
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