Thousands of adults and children have seizures. Seizures come on suddenly, usually without warning. A seizure can be a short, one-time event, or a long and violent attack.

Seizures happen when the brain has a burst of abnormal electrical signals for a short period of time.


Seizures can be caused by an abnormality in the brain that has been there since birth.

Other things that can cause seizures are a head injury, stroke, severe low blood sugar, or a high fever. Use of certain drugs can cause a seizure in some people. Many times the cause of seizures is not known.

If you have two or more of these kinds of seizures, you will be diagnosed with epilepsy.

Seizures can run in families.

Types of seizures

There are two main types of seizures: generalized seizures, and partial or focal seizures. A generalized seizure affects most of the brain. There are different kinds of generalized seizures. They include absence, myoclonic, atonic, and tonic-clonic seizures. During any of these seizures, a person may lose consciousness.

An absence seizure used to be called a petit mal seizure. During this kind of seizure, you may  become quiet and not move, and may stare into space. In a myoclonic seizure, you have sudden, brief muscle jerking. With an atonic seizure, your muscles will quickly lose normal tension. You may collapse and fall.

The most common type of seizure is a generalized seizure called a tonic-clonic seizure. It is also known as a grand mal seizure. The seizure then starts with a stiffening of your body. This is the tonic phase. You  may stop breathing for a short time. The clonic phase then occurs when the body makes jerking movements. You may lose bladder or bowel control. Some people may only have tonic or clonic symptoms and not both.

The second main type of seizure is called a partial or focal seizure. Unlike a generalized seizure, a partial seizure happens in just one part of the brain. There are three kinds of partial seizure: simple, complex, and secondarily generalized.

A simple partial seizure happens only on one side of the brain. The seizure can cause jerky body movement on one side of the body. You may also have changes in heart rhythm, blood pressure, bladder function, and hearing. You generally do not lose consciousness. A complex seizure often starts with an aura.

You may then stare into space or have repetitive body movements. In some cases, a partial seizure that starts in one part of the brain can then affect the whole brain. This is called a secondarily generalized partial seizure. It can cause signs of generalized seizures such as muscle jerking, falling, and stiffening.

Seizure Safety

Depending on the type, any seizure may last a few seconds or a few minutes. You can’t swallow your tongue, but you might bite it. Do not try to put something in a person’s mouth if they’re having a seizure.

Recovery from a seizure depends on the type. After a seizure, you may be very tired and confused. You may have a headache or want to sleep. If you fall during a seizure, you may have injuries that need to be treated.

Most seizures are not medical emergencies. But you should get medical help right away if someone has a seizure, especially if the person:

  • Has never had a seizure
  • Has more than one seizure in a row
  • Is pregnant, diabetic, or has a serious health condition
  • Is having trouble breathing, or
  • Fell and injured him or herself during the seizure

If you have seizures, you may not be legally able to drive. Or you may have your driving restricted until your seizures are under control. You may also not be able to work on dangerous equipment. Talk with your employer if you operate this kind of machinery.


You may have certain tests to see if a cause for the seizures can be found. Tests may include a brain scan. Another is a brain wave study called an electroencephalogram, or E-E-G.  Your healthcare provider will talk with you about the tests that may work best for you.


Treatment for seizures depends on their cause. If a seizure is caused by another health condition, the condition will be treated. For example, a medication that could be causing the seizure may be stopped.

If you are diagnosed with epilepsy, you will likely be given anti-seizure medication. In some cases, surgery may be needed to stop or control the seizures that medication can’t control.

Things to Remember

  • A seizure is when the brain has a burst of abnormal electrical signals for a short period of time.
  • A person having a seizure cannot swallow their tongue. Do not try to put something into a person’s mouth if they are having a seizure.
  • Not all seizures need medical attention. If you’re not sure, call for medical help right away.

What We Have Learned

  1. Anyone who has a seizure has epilepsy. True or false?
    The answer is False. Epilepsy is only diagnosed when a person has two or more seizures that are due to brain damage or an unknown cause.

  2. A seizure can be caused by many things, including low blood sugar and alcohol withdrawal. True or false?
    The answer is True. Seizures can have many causes, including fever, head injury, and certain drugs.

  3. Absence seizures are also known as grand mal seizures. True or false?
    The answer is False. Absence seizures are sometimes known as petit mal seizures.