Epilepsy First Aid — Epilepsy is a surprisingly common neurological disorder that causes seizures or unusual sensations and behaviors. In fact, it is estimated that there are more than 3 million cases of epilepsy per year in the U.S. and about 9% of Americans will have at least one seizure in their lifetime.
What causes Epilepsy?
Epilepsy occurs due to abnormal electrical activity originating in the brain, as brain cells communicate by sending electrical signals in an orderly pattern. In epilepsy, these electrical signals become abnormal, causing an “electrical storm” that causes seizures. These storms may be within a specific part of the brain or be generalized, depending on the type of epilepsy.
Is epilepsy treatable?
Most epileptic seizures can be controlled through drug therapy, although diet may also be used along with medications. There are cases when medication and diet don’t provide the desired effects, and surgery may be used. Treatment depends on several factors, like the frequency and severity of the seizures, the patient’s age, overall health, and medical history.
Epilepsy First Aid — the basics
- Stay with the person until the seizure is over. It’s important to know that seizures can be unpredictable, so it is difficult to know how long they will last or what will happen during them. Seizures can range from minor symptoms to a fall or a loss of consciousness, while other seizures may end in just a few seconds.
- If the person is injured during or after a seizure, they may need help.
Pay attention to how long the seizure lasts.
Using your phone or a clock, time the seizure and keep track of:
- Length of time between the beginning and the end of the active seizure.
- Length of recovery time – how long until the person can return to their usual activity level.
If the active seizure lasts longer than usual for that person, call 911.
- Stay calm
Your response can affect how other people behave. By staying calm, you will help others to stay calm, too. Talk calmly and be reassuring to the person during and after the seizure. This will help them feel better as they recover.
Prevent injury by moving nearby objects out of the way.
- Remove sharp objects from around the person, as necessary.
- If the person is wandering or confused, help steer them away from dangerous situations. For example, keep them away from traffic, the edge of a train or subway platform, high places, and sharp objects.
Make the person as comfortable as possible
Help them sit down in a safe place. If they are at risk of falling, get someone to help you and lay the person down on the floor. Support the person’s head to keep it from hitting the floor.
Epilepsy First Aid – Keep onlookers away
Once the situation is under control, encourage people to step back and give the person some room. Waking up in a crowd can be embarrassing and confusing for a person after a seizure. Ask someone to stay nearby in case you need more help.
Don’t hold the person down
While your first instinct might be to try to hold the person down, do not do it. It won’t stop their seizure and, instead, can cause injuries and make the person more confused, agitated, or aggressive. People don’t fight on purpose during a seizure, but they may act aggressively if they are restrained when they are confused.
If the person tries to walk around, let them walk in a safe, enclosed area if possible. Stay close in case they need to sit down quickly.
Don’t put anything in the person’s mouth. A person may bite down during a seizure if their jaw and face muscles tighten. If something is in their mouth, they could break and swallow the object, or break their teeth!
It’s important to know that a person
can’t swallow their tongue during a seizure.
Watch their breathing
If the person is lying down, gently turn them on their side, with their mouth pointing to the ground. This helps them breathe more easily and keeps saliva from blocking the airway.
During a convulsive seizure (that is, a type of seizure that causes the body to shake and jerk uncontrollably), it may look like the person has stopped breathing. However, you should know that it could be part of the seizure. The chest muscles tighten and then relax near the end of the seizure when breathing will return to normal. Your job is to make sure that they do begin breathing normally.
Epilepsy First Aid – No liquid, pills, or food
Unless they are fully alert, do not give water, pills, or food by mouth. They may not be able to swallow correctly yet. The danger is that food, liquid, or pills could go into their lungs instead of their stomach and make them choke. If the person appears to be choking, turn them on their side and call for help.
Call 911 right away if:
- The person can’t cough and clear their airway on their own.
- The person is having trouble breathing.
When to call 911 for help
- A seizure that lasts 5 minutes or longer.
- Multiple seizures, one after the other, without the person regaining consciousness between seizures.
- Seizures happen closer together than usual for that person.
- The person has trouble breathing.
- The person appears to be choking.
- The seizure happens in water, like a swimming pool, ocean, or bathtub.
- The person is injured during the seizure.
- You believe this is the first seizure the person has had.
- The person asks for medical help.
Be supportive and kind
Having a seizure can be scary to the person experiencing it as well as to people who are present. If you are being a helper, keep yourself calm, be sensitive and supportive. Ask others who are nearby to do the same. Clearing a crowd is a good job for another helper. Someone who has a seizure may feel embarrassed or confused about what happened. Keep this in mind as the person “comes to.”
Reassure the person that they are safe, and, once they are alert and can communicate, let them know what happened using simple words. Offer to stay with them until they are ready to go back to normal activity, or call someone who can stay with them.
Learn more about epilepsy from the Epilepsy Foundation.
November is National Epilepsy Awareness Month. Find opportunities to learn, volunteer, or donate on their website.
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