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Seizures

Seizures: Overview

The brain controls how the body moves by sending out small electrical signals through the nerves to the muscles. Seizures, or convulsions, occur when abnormal signals from the brain change the way the body functions.

Seizures are different from person to person. Some people have only slight shaking of a hand and don't lose consciousness. Other people may become unconscious and have violent shaking of the entire body.

Shaking of the body, either mild or violent, doesn't always occur with seizures. Some people who have seizures have symptoms before the seizure (auras). Or they may briefly lose touch with their surroundings and seem to stare into space. The person is awake. But he or she doesn't respond normally. Afterward, the person doesn't remember the episode.

Not all body shaking is caused by seizures. Many medical conditions can cause a type of body shaking that usually affects the hands and head (tremors).

A small number of people will have only one seizure during their lifetime. A single seizure usually lasts less than 3 minutes and isn't followed by a second seizure. Any normally healthy person can have a single seizure under certain conditions. For instance, a sharp blow to the head may cause a seizure. Having one seizure doesn't always mean that there's a serious health problem. But if you have a first-time seizure, you should be checked by your doctor. It's important to rule out a serious illness that may have caused the seizure. Fever seizures (febrile convulsions) are the most common cause of a single seizure, especially in children.

Causes of seizures

Epilepsy is a nervous system problem that causes seizures. It can occur at any age.

A seizure can be a symptom of another health problem, such as:

  • A quickly increasing fever (fever seizure).
  • An extremely low blood sugar level in a person who has diabetes.
  • Damage to the brain from a stroke, brain surgery, or a head injury.
  • Problems that someone has had since birth (congenital problems).
  • Withdrawal from alcohol, prescription medicine, or illegal drugs.
  • An infection, such as meningitis or encephalitis.
  • A brain tumor or structural defect in the brain, such as an aneurysm.
  • Parasitic infections, such as tapeworm or toxoplasmosis.

Eclampsia is pregnancy-related seizure activity that is related to high blood pressure. It's a life-threatening condition for a mother and also for her baby (fetus). That's because during a seizure, the fetus's oxygen supply is drastically reduced. Eclampsia is more likely to occur after the 20th week of pregnancy.

Nonepileptic seizure (NES) is a condition that can cause seizure-like activity in a person who doesn't have a central nervous system problem. NES can be related to a mental health problem. The physical symptoms may be caused by emotional conflicts or stress. The symptoms usually appear suddenly and at times of extreme emotional stress.

Treatment

Treatment of a seizure depends on what caused it.

  • Seizure in children

    Seizure in children without fever or known seizure disorder: Overview

    A seizure is a brief, abnormal change in the brain’s electrical activity. Seizures can cause a range of problems. Not all seizures cause shaking (convulsions). During some types, your child may stare into space. He or she may look normal but may not seem to hear you.

    Many things can cause seizures. When a seizure is not caused by a fever, the cause could be very low blood sugar. Or the cause could be a head injury from an accident. A seizure also can be a sign of epilepsy. It can cause seizures that may come back now and then. Other things, such as abnormal heart rhythms or anxiety, can cause symptoms that look like seizures.

    One seizure does not mean that your child has a serious health problem. But you should watch for more seizures. Call your doctor if any occur. The doctor may need to do more tests and treatment.

    The doctor has checked your child carefully, but problems can develop later. If you notice any problems or new symptoms, get medical treatment right away.

  • Caring for children

    How can you care for seizures in children without fever or known seizure disorder?

    • If your child has another seizure:
      • Protect your child from injury. Ease your child to the floor.
      • Turn your child onto his or her side, which will help clear the mouth of any vomit or saliva. This will help keep the tongue from blocking your child’s airflow. Keeping your child’s head and chin forward also will help keep the airway open.
      • Loosen your child’s clothing.
      • Do not put anything in your child’s mouth to stop tongue-biting. Putting something in the mouth could injure you or your child.
      • Try to stay calm. It will help calm your child. Comfort your child with quiet, soothing talk.
      • Time the length of the seizure. If the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes, call 911.
      • Note the date and time of day that the seizure occurred. Write down details about what happened before and during the seizure. Include what your child ate before the seizure or what he or she was doing.
      • Provide a safe area where your child can rest. Check your child for injuries and stay with your child until he or she is fully awake and alert.
    • The doctor may give your child medicine that prevents seizures. Have your child take medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think your child is having a problem with his or her medicine. You will get more details on the specific medicines your doctor prescribes.
  • Prevention and management

    Helping Your Child Prevent and Manage Seizures

  • When to call

    Seizure in children without fever or known seizure disorder: When to call

    Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

    • Your child has another seizure during the same illness.
    • Your child has new symptoms. These may include weakness or numbness in any part of the body.

    Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

    • Your child is not acting normally after the seizure.

    Watch closely for changes in your child’s health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

    • Your child does not get better as expected.