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Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a long-term condition where a person has repeated seizures, and is thought to affect about 2% of Australians.

Having just one seizure is not considered to be epilepsy – about half the people who have one seizure never have another seizure.

Epilepsy is not one single condition; rather it is a range of different conditions that can cause seizures.

What is a seizure?

If you witness a seizure, you can go to Epilepsy Australia’s seizure first aid resources.

A seizure is caused by an episode of disrupted electrical activity in the brain and can vary greatly depending on the part of the brain involved.

They can cause problems such as a loss of consciousness, unusual jerking movements (convulsions) as well as other unusual feelings, sensations and behaviours.

Not all seizures are considered epilepsy. Other conditions such as fever, diabetes, heart conditions and psychological conditions can also cause seizures.

What are the common types of seizures?

There are many different types of seizures, which are generally categorised based on the parts of the brain involved (whole of brain or just one part) and prominent features (such as the types of jerking movements if there are any).

Generalised seizures involve the whole brain and therefore the whole body is affected. They include both generalised tonic-clonic seizures and generalised absence seizures. Focal seizures involve only part of the brain.

Generalised tonic-clonic seizures

Previously known as ‘grand mal seizures’, these types of seizures are the most well recognised. The seizure begins with a sudden loss of consciousness, the body then becomes stiff followed by jerking of the muscles. Turning red or blue, tongue-biting and loss of bladder control are common. Confusion, drowsiness, memory loss, headache and agitation can occur on regaining consciousness.

Generalised absence seizures

Previously known as ‘petit mal seizures’, these types of seizures usually start in childhood, but can occur in adults. Seizures are brief and characterised by staring, loss of expression, unresponsiveness and stopping activity. Sometimes eye blinking or upward eye movements are seen. The person usually recovers immediately and resumes their previous activity, with no memory of the event.

Focal seizures

Previously known as ‘partial seizures’, start in one area of the brain and affect the parts of the body controlled by that area of the brain. The seizure may involve unusual movements, feelings, sensations or behaviours. People can have different levels of consciousness during focal seizures.

What can trigger a seizure?

Common triggers for seizures include:

  • lack of sleep
  • missed or too much antiepileptic medication
  • physical and emotional stress
  • hormonal fluctuations
  • fever
  • alcohol or drug use
  • flashing lights.

What are febrile convulsions?

Febrile convulsions are common seizures occurring in 3% of healthy children up to the age of 6 years. The seizures are generally harmless and associated with an illness causing a fever, such as a viral infection.

Management includes treating the seizure if necessary, as well as treating the underlying cause of the fever.

In the absence of any risk factors for epilepsy, children with febrile convulsions have a similar risk of developing epilepsy to the general population.

Where can I get more information?

You can find more epilepsy information on these websites:

Sources: Epilepsy Action (PDF - Basic Facts on Epilepsy, 2012), Epilepsy Australia (PDF - Seizure and Epilepsy fact sheet, 2012), Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) (AFP March 2014: Epilepsy in Adults, 2014), The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne (PDF - Clinical Practice Guidelines Febrile Convulsions).

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your epilepsy, check your symptoms with healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Last reviewed: July 2015

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

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