What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy in children: Overview

Epilepsy is a common condition that causes repeated seizures. The seizures are caused by bursts of electrical activity in the brain that aren't normal. Seizures may cause problems with muscle control, movement, speech, vision, or awareness. They can be scary.

Epilepsy affects each person differently. Some people have only a few seizures. Others get them more often.

It's normal to worry when your child has a seizure. But it's also important to help your child live, play, and learn like other children.

Your child can take medicines to control and reduce seizures. And you can find ways to help keep your child as safe as possible. You and your doctor will need to find the right combination, schedule, and dose of medicine. This may take time and careful changes.


Epilepsy is a disorder that causes repeated seizures. Seizures may cause problems with muscle control, movement, speech, vision, or awareness. They usually don't last very long, but they can be scary.

Most people are able to control their seizures with medicines. Some people outgrow epilepsy and no longer have seizures.

What happens when you have epilepsy?

Epilepsy does not always follow a course that you can predict. It can start at any age. And it may get worse over time or it may get better.

Though not common, epilepsy that begins in a certain area of the brain may over time affect another part of the brain. Some types of childhood epilepsy go away after the child reaches the teen years. Other types may continue for life. Epilepsy that started after a head injury may go away after several years or may last the rest of your life.

What are the symptoms of epilepsy?

The main symptom of epilepsy is repeated seizures that happen without warning. There are different kinds of seizures. You may notice strange smells or sounds. You may lose control of your muscles. Or your body may twitch or jerk. Your symptoms will depend on the type of seizure you have.

What are the types of epilepsy?

There are many types of epilepsy. All types cause seizures. Some specific types are:

  • Benign focal childhood epilepsy. It causes muscles all over the body to stiffen and jerk. These symptoms usually occur at night.
  • Childhood and juvenile absence epilepsy. It causes staring into space, eye fluttering, and slight muscle jerks.
  • Infantile spasms (West syndrome). It causes muscle spasms that affect a child's head, torso, and limbs. Spasms usually start before a child is 1 year old.
  • Juvenile myoclonic epilepsy. It causes jerking in the shoulders or arms.
  • Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. It causes frequent seizures and several different types of seizures. It can lead to falls during a seizure, which can cause an injury.
  • Temporal lobe epilepsy (the most common type of epilepsy in adults). It causes smacking of the lips or rubbing the hands together, emotional or thought disturbances, and hearing, smelling, or tasting things that aren't there (hallucinations of sounds, smells, or tastes).

How is epilepsy treated?

You can take medicines to control and reduce seizures. You and your doctor will need to find the right combination, schedule, and dose of medicine. After you find a medicine that works for you, take it exactly as prescribed.

If medicine alone doesn't control your seizures, your doctor may recommend other treatments. They include:

  • Surgery to remove tissue in the brain or the area of brain tissue where seizures start.
  • A special diet in which you eat more fat and less carbohydrate.
  • A vagus nerve stimulator. This device sends weak signals to the vagus nerve in your neck and to your brain to help control seizures.
  • A responsive neurostimulation system. This device senses when a seizure may be starting. It sends a weak signal to prevent the seizure.
  • Deep brain stimulation (DBS). This device sends signals to change the activity in an area of the brain involved in seizures.

How is epilepsy diagnosed?

Diagnosing epilepsy can be hard. Your doctor will ask questions to find out what happened just before, during, and right after a seizure. Your doctor will examine you. You'll have some tests, such as an electroencephalogram. This information can help your doctor decide what kind of seizures you have and if you have epilepsy.

Is it safe to stop using medicine for epilepsy?

If you haven't had a seizure in several years, you may ask your doctor if you can slowly stop or reduce your medicine. You and your doctor will need to weigh the benefits of stopping treatment against the risk that your seizures may return.

You have a lower risk of having a seizure after you stop medicine if:

  • You haven't had a seizure in 2 years or more.
  • You have only one type of seizure. (An exception is myoclonic seizures, which usually require lifelong treatment.)
  • Your epilepsy started when you were a child or teen.
  • You had only a few seizures before starting treatment.
  • Your seizures were easy to control with initial drug therapy using only one medicine.
  • Your electroencephalogram (EEG) is consistently normal.
  • Brain scans (MRI or CT scan) don't show any problems.
  • You have a type of epilepsy that tends to go away (remit), such as benign focal childhood epilepsy.

Who can diagnose and treat epilepsy?

If you or your child has a seizure, your doctor may refer you to a neurologist. Your regular doctor may be able to manage your epilepsy treatment after your seizures are under control.

People with epilepsy who have trouble controlling seizures and need special care, tests, or surgery can get help at epilepsy centers. The staff at these centers includes doctors and other health professionals trained to treat people who have it.

How can you care for your child who has epilepsy?

  • Be safe with medicines. Have your child take medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think your child is having a problem with a medicine.
  • Make a treatment plan with your doctor. Be sure your child follows the plan.
  • Help your child identify and avoid things that may cause a seizure. These include:
    • Not getting enough sleep.
    • Being emotionally stressed.
    • Skipping meals.
  • Keep a record of any seizures your child has. Note the date, time of day, and any details about the seizure that you and your child can remember. Your doctor can use this information to plan or adjust medicine or other treatment.
  • Be sure that any doctor who treats your child for another condition knows that your child has epilepsy. Each doctor should know what medicines your child is taking, if any.
  • Have your child wear a medical ID bracelet. You can buy this at most drugstores. If your child has a seizure that leaves them unconscious or unable to speak, this bracelet will let others giving treatment know that your child has epilepsy.
  • If your child is on a ketogenic diet, help them follow the diet carefully. With this diet, your child eats a lot more fat and less carbohydrate. This reduces seizures in some children who have epilepsy.
  • Talk to your doctor about whether it is safe for your child to do certain activities, such as swimming.
  • Talk to your child's teachers and caregivers. Teach them what to do if your child has a seizure.

If your child has another seizure

  • Protect your child from injury. Ease your child to the floor.
  • Turn your child onto their 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.
  • Time the length of the seizure. If the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes, call 911.
  • Try to stay calm. It will help calm your child. Comfort your child with quiet, soothing talk.
  • Check your child for injuries after the seizure.
  • Provide a safe area where your child can rest. And stay with your child until your child is fully awake and alert.
  • Wait until your child is fully awake and alert before giving your child something to eat or drink.

Can you drive when you have epilepsy?

If you have seizures that change your awareness, consciousness, or muscle control, you may not have the legal right to drive.

  • Laws vary from state to state. You may have to be seizure-free for at least 6 months to 1 year before you can get a driver's license.
  • The laws of the state you live in, not your doctor, decide whether you have the right to drive. You can find out about the law in your state by visiting the Epilepsy Foundation website.
  • Some drugs used to control epilepsy may make you drowsy. If you just started a new drug, don't drive until you know how the drug will affect you.

The laws about who can drive may seem unfair. But they can keep you and others safe until your seizures are under control.

Be sure to take antiepileptic medicine as prescribed. Taking it incorrectly makes it more likely you'll have an accident.

What increases your risk for epilepsy?

The risk for epilepsy increases if you have:

  • Family history of epilepsy.
  • Head injury (for example, a penetrating wound or skull fracture) with amnesia or loss of consciousness for more than 24 hours. The more severe the injury, the higher the risk.
  • Stroke or conditions that affect the blood vessels (vascular system) in the brain.
  • Brain tumor.
  • Brain infection, such as encephalitis or meningitis.
  • Lead poisoning.
  • Problems with brain development that occurred before birth.
  • Used illegal drugs, like cocaine.
  • Fever seizures that last a long time (also known as febrile convulsions).
  • Alzheimer's disease.

Epilepsy may develop even though you do not have any risk factors. This is especially true of many forms of childhood epilepsy.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a common condition that causes repeated seizures. Seizures may cause problems with muscle control, movement, speech, vision, or awareness. They usually don't last very long, but they can be scary. Treatment usually works to control and reduce seizures.

What causes epilepsy?

Many things can cause epilepsy. It may develop as a result of a head injury or a condition that causes damage to the brain, like a tumor or stroke. Genes may also play a role. But you don't have to have a family history to develop it. Often doctors don't know what causes epilepsy.

What other health problems can happen when you have epilepsy?

Epileptic seizures themselves usually cause no harm. The danger lies in where you are or what you are doing when the seizure occurs. For example, there is a risk of head injury, broken bones, and other injuries when you fall during a seizure.

Some seizures may place brief but severe stress on the body. This can cause problems with the muscles, lungs, or heart. Choking or an abnormal heartbeat may cause sudden death, though this is rare. Seizures that aren't treated and become more severe or frequent may lead to these problems.

More serious problems related to epilepsy are not common but may include:

  • Status epilepticus. This prolonged seizure can result in brain damage or death.
  • Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP). There is a small risk of this for people with epilepsy. The risk may be higher in people who often have tonic-clonic seizures or uncontrolled seizures.

Epilepsy: Tips for Keeping Your Child Safe

Epilepsy in children: When to call

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

  • Your child's seizure does not stop as it normally does.
  • Your child has new symptoms such as:
    • Numbness, tingling, or weakness on one side of the body or face.
    • Vision changes.
    • Trouble speaking or thinking clearly.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has a fever.
  • Your child has a severe headache.

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

  • The normal pattern or features of your child's seizures change.

©2011-2024 Healthwise, Incorporated

The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.