Epileptic seizures: recognising the symptoms and how to help

Published 7 Jan 2020 • By Louise Bollecker

Do you know all the forms an epileptic seizure can take? How about the right actions to take when you or someone else is having a seizure? Read and share our guide to epileptic seizures!

Epileptic seizures: recognising the symptoms and how to help

The many symptoms of an epileptic seizure

Tonic-clonic convulsions

When most people think of an epileptic seizure they think of a generalised tonic-clonic convulsion, which causes a sudden loss of consciousness. This is often preceded by a shout or moan and the patient may experience full-body muscle contractions and tremors. They may accidentally bite their tongue and their eyes may roll back into their head, among other things. Following the seizure, the patient gradually regains normal consciousness after a period of confusion and may feel exhausted afterwards.

Other types of epilepsy

This idea of epilepsy though is quite limited, but it's the best known because it's so visible. In reality, the clinical symptoms of epilepsy can vary widely depending on where the electrical disturbance is located in the brain, and if the disturbance is concentrated in one area or spread out. It's more accurate to talk about "epilepsies" in the plural since several variations exist.

>>Find out more about the causes and risk factors of epilepsy

Let's take a look at some of the different symptoms one may observe:

  • - Partial seizures only affect certain parts of the body and cause motor or sensorial impairments, memory loss or loss of consciousness, and may sometimes worsen into full-blown seizures. 
  • - Absences - for a few seconds the patient may suddenly go silent and stare into space, and stop reacting to any external stimuli.
  • - Involuntary muscle contractions, known as myoclonic seizures
  • - Abnormal movements (or ticks): the patient may grind their teeth, experience discombobulated movements in the hands and feet, roll their head or eyes.
  • - Sensory hallucinations: these can include visions, or hearing, smelling or tasting things that are not there.
  • - Experiencing "déjà vu", or feeling as if one is dreaming.
  • - A purely psychological or emotional seizure: sudden fear, uncontrollable laughing, unwanted thoughts, etc.

What's the best way to handle an epileptic seizure?

What you should do:

Is it a tonic-clonic seizure with convulsions? Here are some tips to handle the situation:

  • - Try to stay calm and don't get upset. Tell yourself the seizure will only last a little while.
  • - Keep the patient from falling: lay the person down gently, and as soon as you can, turn them on their side.
  • - If the person is already on the floor, place a cushion or soft object behind their head, that way if the convulsions intensify, they won't bang their head on a hard surface.
  • - Once the seizure is finished, the patient should be turned on their side to allow them to breathe and swallow saliva properly; confirm the person is breathing normally, especially if they look pale.
  • - If others are nearby, ask them not to crowd around the patient: the noise and confusion will make it harder for the patient to calm down.
  • - Make sure to stay with the patient after the seizure has ended as they may still feel confused and disoriented for a few minutes after the seizure is finished.

What you should not do:

There are some old wives' tales about what to do during a seizure. However, under no circumstances should you do the following:

  • - Try to open the patient's mouth
  • - Insert an object into the patient's mouth
  • - Hold down their arms or legs: don't attempt to limit their movements as this could provoke an unpredictable reaction.
  • - Don't try to bring the patient around by talking or shouting at them: they may be able to hear you, but they won't be able to respond.

These types of practices are not only unhelpful, but they could also be dangerous: causing chipped teeth, intense muscle pain, etc. The person attempting to save the patient could also get hurt themselves.

In the case of status epilepticus, during which the seizure lasts for a very long time and the patient does not regain consciousness, or when one seizure is almost immediately followed by another, you should call an ambulance and get the patient to hospital as soon as possible.

Has someone helped you or have you helped someone else during an epileptic seizure?
What tips would you add to this article? Do you have questions or advice? Leave them in the comments below!

This article was written under the supervision of Dr. Henri RUBINSTEIN, a neurological research specialist based in Paris.

avatar Louise Bollecker

Author: Louise Bollecker, Community Manager France

Community Manager of Carenity in France, Louise is also editor-in-chief of the Health Magazine to provide articles, videos and testimonials that focus on patients' experiences and making their voices heard. With a... >> Learn more


lesmal • Ambassador
on 26/01/2020

Thank you for including this article!

As an epilepsy sufferer for over 46 years, it is essential that the public, friends and family know what to do when someone has a seizure! Very little information is known and so much more awareness is needed. 

My epilepsy started at the age of 16; I hit a diving board at the age of 14. My epilepsy started with tonic clonic seizures but these changed over the years to partial and tonic clonic, which still continue. I moved to Northern Ireland from South Africa two and a half years' ago, and have had great care from the Neurologists and Specialists here! Within a year, MRI, MRA, EEG and CT scans were done and I now have a Neurologist I can trust. 

I recently had a brain aneurysm operation, and was put on new epilepsy medication. This is causing distressing side effects at the moment, and more focal seizures are occurring, but this is to be expected after the extent of the operation  also. I hope to change medications in February. 

Never be ashamed to have epilepsy... The longer I've had it the more determined I am to fight it! One has to remain strong, have the willpower to accept it, stay patient and understand what one is dealing with. I've had many embarrassing moments having seizures in public view, but we are all human and would be lost without those helping us. 

During my years of having epilepsy, the quotation... 'There's always light at the end of the tunnel!'... will always be with me!  

on 28/01/2020

Hi everyone.

In response to what should you do if you have an epileptic fit I have done a number of things.

Firstly, let say here I suffer from multiple health issues which can cause some confusion as to what is happening to me if I become unwell.

So, the first thing I do is let everyone know when I'm with friends or with a group people that I do have a number of health issues. This is important as I've just been recently diagnosed with Myasthenia which is a rare condition & is generally unknown. When I have an attack it mimics a stroke & on a number of occasions I have been miss-diagnosed which is understandable but at least I receive urgent medical treatment.  

With regards to my Epilepsy I need to make sure that people understand the type of Epileptic that I am & what form a seizure takes. Now I use humour to get the message over which some might think is not amusing but their are so many people out there who only think that their is only one type. Now I tell people that if I do have a seizure that I 'do not rock & roll on the floor' but I collapse & go like a rag doll, yes I treat my conditions with utter contempt it helps me. I find that this generally gets the message over & everyone is aware of what might be happening but I tell them just call an ambulance. 

I also made up a template which I carry at all times titled In The Case of an Emergency. It has my address details, all the medication that I'm on plus which condition it refers to, contact details of next of kin, my Consultants & finally my hospital number & National Insurance number. I feel that as much information that you can provide helps the Ambulance Service & doctors if your taken ill.

Of course not everyone will agree wit the way I deal with this but if anyone would like a copy of my template just let me know & I will send it to you.  

lesmal • Ambassador
on 10/02/2020

@Martyn1‍ ... Further to your post above, I am registered with MedicAlert UK and wear a Medic Alert bracelet, which has been my life saver in the event of a seizure.

I also carry a wallet card which gives all details, i.e. name, membership number, medication details and more! This certainly helps when I have a tonic clonic seizure and cannot answer the questions! 

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