By Samiya Ahmad, MD
Pediatric Neurologist and Sleep Medicine Physician
The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio
Diplomate of the American Boards of Sleep Medicine, Neurology and Psychiatry with Special Qualification in Child Neurology
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
Baylor College of Medicine
November is Epilepsy Awareness Month, which brings an opportunity to educate others about epilepsy, its symptoms, and treatment options. Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological condition in the U.S. One in 26 people will be diagnosed with epilepsy at some point in their lifetime. Epilepsy remains misunderstood and research initiatives are underfunded.
What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy is also known as a seizure disorder. It is a neurological condition that effects the nervous system and is usually diagnosed once a person has two or more seizures.
What is a seizure?
A seizure is a sudden onset of an illness, such as a convulsion, caused by disturbances in the electrical activity of the brain. Seizures can present in numerous ways, such as staring, shaking, stiffening, or flailing. Seizures can last a few seconds to a few minutes. In serious conditions, seizures may last for hours.
What causes seizures?
Most of the time, the cause for a seizure is unknown. Less often, seizures are due to injury to the brain, infection, or an underlying genetic or family tendency. Young children can develop seizures with fever, which are called “febrile seizures.” Children often grow out of these.
How is epilepsy diagnosed?
A doctor will take a careful history to understand if the event is consistent with a seizure. They will perform a physical examination and then may order a variety of tests like an EEG, which involves placing wires on the scalp that help map out electrical brain waves. The doctor might also choose to take a picture of the brain with either a brain MRI or head CT, also known as a “CAT scan.”
What should I do if someone has a seizure?
Don’t panic. Most seizures last a few minutes. Ensure that the person is not in harm’s way. Lay them on their side, with the mouth facing the ground. This will stop saliva from pooling in their mouth and help them breathe more easily. Time the seizure with your watch or stopwatch. Do Not forcibly hold them down or put anything in their mouth. If the seizure does not stop after five minutes, then call for emergency help.
What happens after a seizure?
A person is usually tired afterwards and may sleep for a while. The person should generally be able to wake up after several minutes but may be sleepy for hours afterwards, depending on how long the seizure lasted and if they received rescue medicines.
What are rescue medicines?
These are medications a doctor prescribes that a family member or caretaker, like a teacher or school nurse, can give to your child to stop a seizure if it lasts longer than five minutes.
Who should I see if my family member or I have seizures?
See your doctor. They may refer you to a neurologist or a pediatric neurologist. A neurologist is a doctor who treats neurological disorders, such as seizures. A pediatric neurologist specializes in disorders of the nervous system in children.
How is epilepsy treated?
Epilepsy can be treated in several ways, but most often with medications. At times, a person may need epilepsy surgery, a special diet, or an implantable device called a vagus nerve stimulator that stops seizures from happening.
Myths and Worries
Is epilepsy contagious?
Will I be able to finish school?
Yes, children with epilepsy can do everything others without epilepsy can do. The trick is to have adequate control of the seizures while minimizing side effects of medications. Your doctor will find the best treatment for you and can work with your school to maximize your potential.
Will I be able to drive?
Once seizures are well controlled for a certain length time, which varies from state to state, a person can drive, as long as they are the appropriate age and have the licensing requirements.
Will I be able to grow up and have children?
Yes, your doctor will follow your health very carefully during pregnancy, along with your obstetrician/gynecologist.
Do you know the numbers?
- 1 in 26 Americans have a chance of developing epilepsy in their lifetime
- 150,000 new cases of epilepsy are diagnosed in the U.S. every year
- 4 million people are living with epilepsy in the U.S.
- The cause is unknown in six out of 10 people with epilepsy
To find a pediatric neurologist or primary care pediatrician for your child, please visit www.chofsa.org/findadoc or call 210.774.6942.