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3-minute read

What is a seizure?

Seizures (also known as fits) are caused by rapid and uncoordinated electrical firing in the brain that often causes alternating stiffening and jerking of the arms and legs, and a loss of consciousness or altered consciousness level.

A person having a seizure may lose consciousness during the seizure, or between several seizures. Others may become very rigid and have a fixed staring expression on their face or rolling eyes.

Symptoms of seizures

Most seizures last for less than two minutes and will stop on their own, without any treatment. The person is usually unconscious for 10 to 20 seconds, and then will start having convulsions.

Causes of seizures

Certain things are known to cause or trigger seizures. The triggers should be avoided wherever possible. Common triggers include:

  • flashing or flickering lights
  • lack of sleep
  • stress
  • alcohol
  • missed medication taken for seizures.

Some causes of seizures include:

  • epilepsy
  • illegal (recreational) drugs
  • alcohol
  • extremely low blood sugar
  • high fever
  • head injury
  • infection
  • brain tumours or other medical problems, including stroke.

Important: Anyone taking prescribed medicines for seizures should always take the correct dosage and make sure they do not miss a dose.

Warning signs

Some people who have seizures may get warning signs, such as a change in body temperature, visual problems or a strange taste in their mouth for example. These signs are also called ‘auras’. If these warnings occur, try to get to a safe place or position if possible.

Sometimes, other people can tell if someone they know is about to have a seizure. They may look different, their pupils may change size or they may act out of character. Again, if this happens, try to guide the person to a safe location.

People who have seizures should take precautions when swimming, driving or bathing.

What to do when someone is having a seizure

  • Do not try to restrain the person or stop the jerking. Don't try to move them or put anything in their mouth.
  • Protect the patient from harming themselves.
  • Put something soft under their head.
  • Time the seizure.
  • Put them on their side in the recovery position as soon as the jerking stops, or immediately if they have vomited or have food or fluid in their mouth.
  • Don't wake them up, but do check their breathing.
  • Look after any injuries they may have.

Call triple zero (000) if:

  • the seizure continues for more than 5 minutes or a second seizure quickly follows
  • the patient remains unresponsive for more than 5 minutes after a seizure stops
  • the patient has been injured
  • the patient has diabetes or is pregnant
  • you know, or believe it to be the patient's first seizure.

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your seizures, why not use 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).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2017

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