What is epilepsy?

graphic is epileptic fit - someone lying on floor shaking

Epilepsy is a condition that affects your brain, causing repeated seizures (some people call these fits.)  Your brain needs a small amount of electricity to work. The electricity signals in your brain can become scrambled and cause a seizure.

If you have a one-off seizure, it may not mean you have epilepsy, but you should speak to a doctor.

You are usually only diagnosed with epilepsy if their doctor thinks there’s a high chance you could have more seizures. Epilepsy can start at any age and there are many different types. Some people only have seizures for a limited time, but epilepsy can be a life-long condition.

Triggers for seizures

These are things that may make seizures more likely and if these can be avoided, they might help to stop some seizures.

You may have different triggers from someone else with epilepsy, but these are the most common

graphic showing forgetting to take medicine

Missing medication or not taking it

graphic showing someone tired and yawning

Lack of sleep or tiredness

Graphic of someone with head in hands feeling stressed


graphic of someone worrying about alcohol

Drugs or alcohol

graphic showing dislike of bright lights

Bright or flickering lights (if you are photosensitive)

Graphic showing someone feeling ill and having a temperature

Being ill or having a high temperature

Graphic showing someone is having their monthly period

Having your monthly period

Non-urgent advice: Types of seizure

There are many types of seizures, and everyone is different, you may experience one or all these types of seizures if you have epilepsy

·       Focal seizures– During a focal seizure, you stay fully aware of your surroundings, but you may not be able to move or respond. These can happen on their own or before a tonic clonic seizure.

·       Tonic seizures– These can start in one side of the brain or both sides. If it starts in one side of your brain, your muscles may tighten in one part of your body. If it starts in both sides of your brain all of your muscles will tighten and go stiff.

·       Tonic Clonic seizures– You lose consciousness, so you won’t be aware of what’s happening. All your muscles go stiff, and if you’re standing you may fall to the floor. You may bite down on your tongue or inside your mouth. Your limbs jerk quickly and rhythmically. You may lose control of your bladder and/or bowels. Your breathing may be affected.

·       Absence seizures– If you have an absence seizure, you may stop what you are doing suddenly. These can last for a few seconds but can last longer and you may have ‘clusters’ which is when you have one after the other. You may stare or appear as if you are daydreaming, your eyelids may twitch, and you might have some twitching.

·       Myoclonic seizures– These are sudden, short-lasting jerks that can affect some or all of your body. They are usually too short to affect your consciousness. The jerking can be very mild, like a twitch, or it can be very forceful.

·       Atonic seizures- If you have atonic seizures, usually all your muscles go limp, and you drop to the floor or your knees. This can result in injuries to your head or face.

Why is epilepsy a risk factor for respiratory problems?

graphic showing health lungs

Epilepsy can impact on your respiratory health due to changing levels of alertness associated with seizures.

This can then:

Affect your posture and movement (link to posture),  

Affect your saliva control (link to managing secretions)

Increase swallowing difficulties (Dysphagia) (link to dysphagia)

Any of these issues put you at greater risk of respiratory problems.


It is not possible to cure epilepsy but there are some options to help you stop having seizures.

graphic of doctor with speech bubble with medicines to show 'giving medicine advice'

Medication is the most common form of treatment and can help to stop or reduce your seizures. Your doctor may want to try different medications to find out what suits you best.

graphic showing dieticians and healthy diet advice

Some people also try a special diet (ketogenic diet) that can help to control seizures, this would be under the care of a Consultant Neurologist and Dietician.

graphic showing doctors treating someone in hospital
  • VNS therapy- A procedure to put a small electrical device inside the body that can help control seizures
  • If medication does not help you, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove a small part of the brain that is causing the seizures.

First Aid

Graphic showing first aid box
  • If someone is with you when you are having a seizure, they should stay with you until the seizure is over and you are fully recovered
  • They should make the area safe where possible and help to cushion your head
  • They should not put their fingers in your mouth or try to move you or keep you still
  • They should follow your epilepsy care plan, if you have one, and give rescue medication if it is prescribed
  • Most people with epilepsy don’t need an ambulance when they have a seizure but if you have a seizure for more than 5 minutes, an ambulance should be called.

More information about epilepsy

My Life with Epilepsy – Resources | SUDEP Action

Home – Epilepsy Action

Epilepsy – NHS (www.nhs.uk)