Please note that this information does not qualify you as an official first aider, and Virtual College advise calling 999 in the first instance at the scene of an emergency.
This material and any associated assessments do not constitute a qualification or accreditation as an official first aider. All content provided is for general information only.
Virtual College advocate dialling the emergency services before attempting any form of first aid.
A person can suffer from an epileptic seizure (also frequently known as an epileptic fit) when they experience abnormal electrical activity in the brain. This can be a serious medical condition, and any member of the population could potentially experience an epileptic seizure at some point in their lives. In this article, we’re going to go through exactly what happens when an epileptic fit occurs, and how they can be triggered.
Note: Epileptic seizures and epilepsy should not be confused, though they can be related. The phrase ‘epileptic seizure’ refers to the seizure event itself, but those people with epilepsy have a condition whereby they are susceptible to seizures that begin in the brain.
Epileptic seizures happen when there is excessive or abnormal behaviour in neural activity occurring in any part of the brain. These can affect normal brain function, causing everything from auditory hallucinations and visual disturbances, to severe physical reactions. They can be one-off events, or commonplace symptoms of a particular condition, and can range from being minor to the point that no medical attention is required, to needing lifelong management.
There are actually two types of seizure that can occur as a result of this abnormal brain activity. They are focal and generalised seizures, and it’s important to know the difference, because they manifest themselves differently, and can have different treatment paths.
Focal seizures, as their name suggests, begin in one part of the brain, which means that their effects can be varied depending on which part of the brain has been affected. They can range from fairly minor events in which the person remains conscious and remembers the seizure, having experienced phenomena such as hallucinatory lights and smells, to events whereby the person becomes confused or unconscious, and may engage in strange movements known as automatisms. This can include repetitive movements such as lip smacking.
Generalised seizures however affect the entire brain, and in almost all cases will result in a period of unconsciousness that the person does not remember. During this, there are a variety of things that can happen:
Note: focal seizures can sometimes progress to become generalised seizures.
There are many potential triggers for an epileptic seizure, and it is unfortunately not always possible to be sure exactly why one has occurred. However, there are numerous described causes, and they tend to be more or less likely based on the person’s age. Some of the major triggers include the following:
Contrary to popular belief, epileptic seizures triggered by light activity (such as strobe lighting) are very uncommon indeed, and generally account for only a very small fraction of events.
To find out more about how patients suffering from an epileptic seizure can be cared for, and when emergency medical attention should be sought, then please read our dedicated first aid article on the subject here. We also recommend visiting our page on the Primary Survey course that we offer. This survey is intended to cover best practice response to a first aid situation.