Close up of definition of epilepsy in dictionary

November is Epilepsy Awareness Month, so we’re dedicating this article to helping people understand the disorder as well as how to help a person experiencing a generalized seizure. Let’s get started.

What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a broad term that refers to a neurological disorder in which electrical events in the brain cause recurrent and unprovoked seizures. While there are sometimes clear causes, such as genetic factors or brain injury, the cause is unknown in most cases. Any person who has experienced more than one seizure not caused by clear and reversible circumstances can be diagnosed with epilepsy.

What Does a Generalized Seizure Look Like?

There are multiple types of seizures in which the brain is affected to varying degrees, but here we’ll focus on generalized tonic-clonic, or grand mal, seizures. During a generalized tonic-clonic seizure, the entire brain is affected. Here are the signs and symptoms to be aware of:

  • A person in the first stage of a generalized seizure may cry out or scream.
  • They will lose consciousness.
  • Their muscles will stiffen for a short period of time (anywhere from several seconds to a minute).
  • They might fall down if they were standing.
  • They may appear to stop breathing.
  • They will experience rhythmic muscle contractions and movement in the arms and legs.
  • These contractions or convulsions usually last from one to two minutes and may slow before stopping.
  • The person may lose control of their bladder and bowels.
  • The person will gradually regain consciousness and may be confused for a while.
  • They may be sleepy or develop a headache after the seizure.

How to Help Someone Having a Generalized Seizure

Calling 911 is not usually necessary, and there is not much you can do to stop a seizure once it has started. It can be an alarming thing to witness, but staying calm is important. There are several things you can do to help a person experiencing a grand mal seizure.

  • If they are sitting or standing, help ease them to the floor.
  • Note when the seizure begins and be aware of how much time is passing.
  • Move hard or sharp objects from the area directly surrounding the person.
  • Loosen anything around the neck that may restrict breathing.
  • If you can, turn the person to one side to help them breathe.
  • Cushion their head with something flat and soft.
  • If they are wearing eyeglasses, remove them.
  • Stay with the person until they are fully conscious.
  • Calmly explain what happened in simple terms.
  • It may not be safe for the person to drive following a seizure, so offer to call them a taxi or give them a ride if they need to go somewhere.


When to Call 911

While it is not always appropriate to call 911 when someone is having a seizure, certain factors necessitate it. Call 911 if:

  • This is the first seizure the person has ever had.
  • The person is pregnant or has a serious medical condition such as diabetes or heart disease.
  • The seizure occurs in water.
  • The person sustains a physical injury during the seizure.
  • The seizure lasts longer than five minutes.
  • Another seizure occurs very soon after the end of the first.
  • The person does not regain consciousness.
  • The person has a hard time talking or breathing following the seizure.

What Not to Do

Knowing what not to do when a person is having a seizure is just as important for preventing further harm or injury as knowing what to do.

  • Do not try to restrict the person’s movements or hold them down.
  • Do not put anything in the person’s mouth.
  • Even if the person does not appear to be breathing, do not give CPR or mouth-to-mouth.
  • Do not offer the person food or drink until they are fully conscious and alert.

While we hope you never have to put this information to use, the reality is that 1 in 10 people will experience a seizure in their lifetime. If you are ever in a position to render aid, remember that the best thing you can do is stay calm, help the person avoid bodily harm, and recognize whether or not they need emergency medical attention.

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