Severe Epilepsy FAQs Answered (VIDEO) | MyEpilepsyTeam

Connect with others who understand.

sign up Log in
Resources
About MyEpilepsyTeam
Powered By

Severe Epilepsy FAQs Answered (VIDEO)

Medically reviewed by Shifteh Sattar, M.D.
Written by Torrey Kim
Updated on January 11, 2024

15 seconds of sponsored content appears before this 10:43-min video.

  • If you witness someone having a full-body seizure, try to ensure they are lying down on their side, and never stick anything in their mouth.
  • Try to time how long the seizure lasts using a clock.
  • It’s important to stay on a prescribed epilepsy treatment unless a doctor advises otherwise.

About 3.5 million people in the United States live with epilepsy, and nearly half a million of those with the condition are children. Although not all types of epilepsy are considered severe, it’s important to always take the condition seriously. That involves managing and treating the disease to keep seizure activity at bay and knowing what to do when a seizure occurs.

To help better understand severe epilepsy and what to do during a seizure, MyEpilepsyTeam sat down with neurologist Dr. Shifteh Sattar. Dr. Sattar is the director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego and a clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.

Her advice can help caregivers of children, adolescents, and adults with epilepsy better understand the condition and hopefully help improve their quality of life. If you have additional questions about severe epilepsy, talk to health care providers, clinicians, or other care team members.

What’s the first thing someone should do if they witness another person having a seizure?

No. 1 is to stay calm, and that’s one of the hardest things to tell a person who has never seen a seizure before to do, because you will probably be panicked, and rightfully so. Even if you’ve seen many, it’s still easy to get nervous, but the key is to stay calm and turn the person to their side.

Don’t stick anything in their mouth, and try to time how long the seizure lasts.

In the beginning, if you’re witnessing a seizure, it’s important to see if some features can guide the physician in choosing the right medication or treatment plan. For example, you might notice if the person has their head turned to one side, or if one arm is stiffening first, and then they go into a full-body seizure. These details will be important to know.

Those are the most important things to know if the person is having a full-body generalized seizure — where their whole body is stiffening and shaking. But there are many different types of seizures.

If someone is just staring or unresponsive, you want to make sure they’re safe. And if it does progress to a full-body seizure, lay them down and turn them to the side to make sure that if they vomit, they don’t choke on it or aspirate it into their lungs. If you are concerned that they’re choking or if there are any other concerning issues, call 911 immediately.

Editor’s note: If the person having the seizure has a rescue medication and you have been trained on how to administer it, consider giving this medication if appropriate.

Should someone write down what they observe during the seizure so they can share it with the doctor?

Yes, if you can. I advise people to try and remember it because people may be very stressed watching someone have a seizure, and they aren’t going to be in the frame of mind to write things down. Even when people try to guesstimate how much time a seizure lasts, it’s usually very different from the actual timing.

Those kinds of errors even occur in the hospital, not just with parents. Sometimes, when we have children on the video when we’re monitoring them, the nurse might say the seizure lasted three minutes, when in actuality, it was 60 seconds. And that’s OK. It’s not a big deal — it happens everywhere. But that’s why, if you can remember, just look at the clock and then when it stops, you can look back and say, “Oh, it looked like it was three minutes.”

Should people write down what they (or their child) were doing before the seizure — for instance, what they ate, what they were up to — or is that not really relevant for the physician?

It’s relevant if you see it as a pattern. There are situations where people say, “Every time they eat a certain food, they have a seizure,” and we want to know that. But we don’t have any definitive data about food triggers. However, we do know that some people are sensitive to certain things, and if you identify that pattern, then we’ll advise them to maybe stay away from those provoking factors.


“There are situations where people say, ‘Every time they eat a certain food, they have a seizure,‘ and we want to know that.”
— Dr. Shifteh Sattar

Enter Cell 2 Content Here...

Enter Cell 3 Content Here...

Enter Cell 4 Content Here...

Enter Cell 5 Content Here...

Enter Cell 6 Content Here...

We often say that the most common trigger is sleep deprivation. A seizure may also happen when people have physiological stress — for instance, if they’re sick with a cold — but typically, for most patients with epilepsy, there isn’t often a typical trigger except in cases like patients with Dravet syndrome, for example, when they may have sensitivity to heat or temperature changes.

Some people say they (or their child) have a seizure disorder but don’t have epilepsy. Is there a difference? And if so, what is it?

There isn’t actually a difference, and this can be very confusing. One of the first conversations I have at my first visit with families is that generally when you have two seizures — and in the past, we used to say if they were separated by time — then you would be classified as having epilepsy. The criteria have been revised, so it’s been easier for us to make the diagnosis. Sometimes, depending on findings from the diagnostic tests — which are usually magnetic resonance imaging or electroencephalogram — we may diagnose you with epilepsy after just one seizure, which is the same as a seizure disorder.

For someone with a severe form of epilepsy, such as Dravet syndrome, what would be the risks of going off treatment?

I always say Dravet syndrome is a spectrum, so you can have a mild epilepsy syndrome or a severe one. And I describe mild because sometimes, we do identify the genetic abnormality for Dravet. These children can present with seizures or status epilepticus, but over time, they might have one seizure a year or only when they’re ill. There’s another end of the spectrum in which they might experience multiple seizures daily, and there can be multiple different kinds.


​​​“I always advise not to come off medications because the risks are more significant.”
— Dr. Shifteh Sattar

Enter Cell 2 Content Here...

Enter Cell 3 Content Here...

Enter Cell 4 Content Here...

Enter Cell 5 Content Here...

Enter Cell 6 Content Here...

For those patients, I think there could be different treatment options, but I generally say if you’re diagnosed with epilepsy — and especially with severe epilepsy syndromes — then medication should be used. The physician wants the best for the patient and the parents. We want to work with the family and try to identify the medication that has the fewest side effects and the best effect on controlling seizures. This doesn’t happen often, but we try. I always advise not to come off medications because the risks are more significant. And the more seizures you have, especially if they’re generalized tonic-clonic, there’s a higher risk for sudden unexpected death in epilepsy.

Is there anything else you’d want people with severe epilepsy to know about living with the condition?

I want to say I feel for them. I think having epilepsy is really hard for the family and the patient. It’s an everyday struggle and it’s a chronic disease. I think people need to realize that.

It’s important to know that certain intractable motor seizures qualify as a diagnosis for children for Make-A-Wish. I like to refer my severe epilepsy patients to Make-A-Wish during their hard times or a rough year because it’s really important for them to have a special moment.

I would love it if there were more support for the families. This is especially true for adults with epilepsy, who may need someone to drive them around. It would be amazing if there were some financial funding from the government that could accommodate that so they can feel more independent.


“It’s important to know that certain intractable motor seizures qualify as a diagnosis for children for Make-A-Wish.”

— Dr. Shifteh Sattar

Enter Cell 2 Content Here...

Enter Cell 3 Content Here...

Enter Cell 4 Content Here...

Enter Cell 5 Content Here...

Enter Cell 6 Content Here...

I also feel for young adults who have intractable epilepsy as they complete their education, finish school transition programs, and then sometimes, there’s no way for them to move to the next step in life. I really hope that new programs will be created for them. I also believe employers should be more humble and considerate and try to provide opportunities for individuals who have epilepsy.

Find Your Team

MyEpilepsyTeam is the social network for people with epilepsy and their loved ones. On MyEpilepsyTeam, more than 119,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with epilepsy.

Are you or a loved one living with severe epilepsy? Share your experiences or questions in a comment below, or start a conversation on your Activities page.

Updated on January 11, 2024
All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.

We'd love to hear from you! Please share your name and email to post and read comments.

You'll also get the latest articles directly to your inbox.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Shifteh Sattar, M.D. is the medical director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center and the EEG laboratory at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. Learn more about her here.
Torrey Kim is a freelance writer with MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

Related Articles

Have you ever wondered about the difference between Epidiolex, the first cannabidiol-based prescr...

CBD Oils vs. Epidiolex: How Are They Different?

Have you ever wondered about the difference between Epidiolex, the first cannabidiol-based prescr...
Sticking to your medication schedule is an essential step in controlling your epilepsy. But in so...

What Should You Do if You Vomit Your Seizure Medication?

Sticking to your medication schedule is an essential step in controlling your epilepsy. But in so...
When you hear some people talking about turmeric, it sounds like there’s nothing this spice can’t...

Turmeric and Epilepsy: Can It Help With Seizures?

When you hear some people talking about turmeric, it sounds like there’s nothing this spice can’t...
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a derivative of hemp that can be used alongside other treatments to help man...

Which Types of Epilepsy Can Be Treated With CBD?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a derivative of hemp that can be used alongside other treatments to help man...
For children and adults living with epilepsy, taking daily anti-seizure medication is essential —...

6 Tips on Taking Epilepsy Medications for Kids and Adults

For children and adults living with epilepsy, taking daily anti-seizure medication is essential —...
If your child is living with epilepsy, you might be presented with a lengthy list of treatment op...

5 Factors in Choosing Epilepsy Treatments for Your Child

If your child is living with epilepsy, you might be presented with a lengthy list of treatment op...

Recent Articles

MyHealthTeam does not provide health services, and if you need help, we’d strongly encourage you ...

Crisis Resources

MyHealthTeam does not provide health services, and if you need help, we’d strongly encourage you ...
Several antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) commonly cause weight gain or weight loss, but levetiracetam (...

Keppra and Weight Change: Is It a Side Effect?

Several antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) commonly cause weight gain or weight loss, but levetiracetam (...
For millions of people with epilepsy, navigating daily life means balancing seizure control with ...

Alcohol Consumption and Keppra: What Are the Effects?

For millions of people with epilepsy, navigating daily life means balancing seizure control with ...
“In a couple of days, I’ll feel the adrenaline rush of roller coasters!” a MyEpilepsyTeam member ...

Riding Roller Coasters With Epilepsy: Is It Safe?

“In a couple of days, I’ll feel the adrenaline rush of roller coasters!” a MyEpilepsyTeam member ...
Several members of MyEpilepsyTeam have mentioned skydiving is among their “bucket list” items. Bu...

Can You Go Skydiving With Epilepsy?

Several members of MyEpilepsyTeam have mentioned skydiving is among their “bucket list” items. Bu...
How many hours per day do you and your loved ones spend looking at computer monitors, tablets, an...

Can Too Much Screen Time Cause Seizures?

How many hours per day do you and your loved ones spend looking at computer monitors, tablets, an...
MyEpilepsyTeam My epilepsy Team

Thank you for subscribing!

Become a member to get even more:

sign up for free

close