Epilepsy Foundation Metropolitan Washington

What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a medical condition that produces seizures affecting a variety of mental and physical functions. It’s also called a seizure disorder. A seizure happens when a brief, strong surge of electrical activity affects part or all of the brain. When a person has two or more seizures, they are considered to have epilepsy.

Seizures can last a few seconds to a few minutes. They can have many symptoms — convulsions, loss of consciousness, blank staring, lip smacking or limb jerking. These latter symptoms are not always recognized as seizures by the person experiencing them or by health care professionals.

1 in 26 American will develop epilepsy in their lifetime and 1 in 10 Americans will experience a seizure. Currently more than 2 million people in the U.S. and 65 million people worldwide are living with epilepsy.

undefined Age of onset: Epilepsy primarily affects the very young and the very old, although anyone can get epilepsy at any time. Twenty percent of cases develop before the age of five. Fifty percent develop before the age of 25. It is increasingly associated with the elderly, and there are as many cases of epilepsy in those 60 years of age and older as in children 10 years of age and under.

Causes: In about 70 percent of cases there is no known cause. Of the remaining 30 percent, the following are the most frequent causes:

  • Brain tumor and/or stroke.
  • Head trauma, especially from automobile accidents, gunshot wounds, sports accidents, and falls and blows.
  • Poisoning, such as lead poisoning, and substance abuse.
  • Infection, such as meningitis or viral encephalitis or lupus erythematosus and others.
  • Maternal injury, infection or illness that affects the developing brain of the fetus during pregnancy.

Facts About Epilepsy and Seizures

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You can't swallow your tongue during a seizure. It's physically impossible to swallow your tongue.

You should NEVER force something into the mouth of someone having a seizure. Absolutely not! Forcing something into the mouth of someone having a seizure is a good way to chip teeth, cut gums, or even break someone's jaw. The correct first aid is simple. Just gently roll the person on one side, support their head, protect from injury, and make sure their breathing is okay.

You should NEVER restrain someone having a seizure. Most seizures end in seconds or a few minutes and will end on their own. You can protect the person from injury by following simple first-aid guidelines.

Epilepsy is NOT contagious. You simply can't catch epilepsy from another person.

More than kids get epilepsy. Anyone can develop epilepsy.  Seizures start for the first time in people over age 65 almost as often as it does to children. Seizures in the elderly are often the after effect of other health problems like stroke and heart disease.

People with epilepsy are NOT disabled and CAN work. Most people with epilepsy can do the same things that people without epilepsy can do. However, some people with frequent seizures may not be able to work, drive, or may have problems in other parts of their life.

info_aa_5People with epilepsy CAN handle jobs with responsibility and stress. People with seizure disorders are found in all walks of life. They may work in business, government, the arts and all sorts of professions. If stress bothers their seizures, they may need to learn ways to manage stress at work. But everyone needs to learn how to cope with stress! There may be some types of jobs that people with epilepsy can't do because of possible safety problems. Otherwise, having epilepsy should not affect the type of job or responsibility that a person has.

Even with today's medication, epilepsy CANNOT be cured. Epilepsy is a chronic medical problem that for many people can be successfully treated. Unfortunately, treatment doesn't work for everyone. At least 1 million people in the United States have uncontrolled epilepsy. There is still an urgent need for more research, better treatments and a cure.

Epilepsy is NOT rare. There are more than twice as many people with epilepsy in the US as the number of people with cerebral palsy (500,000), muscular dystrophy (250,000), multiple sclerosis (350,000), and cystic fibrosis (30,000) combined. Epilepsy can occur as a single condition, or may be seen with other conditions affecting the brain, such as cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, autism, Alzheimer's, and traumatic brain injury.

You CAN die from epilepsy. Most people do not die from seizures however, epilepsy is a very serious condition and individuals do die from seizures. The most common cause of death is SUDEP or Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy. While there is a lot we still don't know about SUDEP, experts estimate that one out of every 1000 people with epilepsy die from SUDEP each year. People can also die from prolonged seizures (status epilepticus). About 22,000 to 42,000 deaths in the US each year occur from these seizure emergencies.

You can tell what a person might do during a seizure. What happens in a seizure may look different from one person to another. However, they are often stereotypic, which means the same things or behaviors tend to occur each time they have a seizure.  The seizure behavior may be inappropriate for the time and place, but it is unlikely to cause harm to anyone.

People with epilepsy are not physically limited in what they can do. In most cases, epilepsy isn't a barrier to what people can do physically. During and after a seizure, a person may have trouble moving or doing their usual activity. Some people may have trouble with physical abilities due to other neurological problems. Aside from these problems, a person who is not having a seizure is usually not limited in what they can do physically.

Seizure First Aid

undefinedFirst aid for epilepsy is fairly simple—the most important thing is to keep the person safe until the seizure stops by itself. The key things to remember when providing first aid for someone experiencing a seizure are to:

  • Keep calm and reassure other people who may be nearby.
  • Time the seizure.
  • Clear the area around him of anything hard or sharp, so as to help ensure his safety.
  • Loosen his tie, or anything else he might have around his neck that may make breathing difficult.
  • Put something flat and soft, like a folded jacket, under his head.
  • Turn him gently onto one side. This will help keep his airway clear.
  • Stay with him until the seizure ends naturally.
  • Be friendly and reassuring as he returns to consciousness.
  • Offer to call a taxi, friend or relative to help him get home if he seems confused or unable to get home by himself.

You should also know things you should NOT do:

  • Do not try to force his mouth open with your fingers or a hard implement. It is not true that a person having a seizure can swallow his tongue. Efforts to hold the tongue down can seriously injure his teeth or jaw.
  • Don’t attempt artificial respiration unless he doesn’t start breathing again after the seizure has stopped (note that this is extremely unlikely to happen).
  • Don’t hold him down or try to stop his movements.

Types of Seizures

undefinedThere are many different types of seizures. People may experience just one type or more than one. The kind of seizures that most people have heard of makes a person fall, get stiff, and then shake for a short time. Breathing may be faint, and even stop briefly. After a minute or two, the shaking and jerking slows down and stops. Breathing starts again and slowly gets back to normal. This kind of seizure may be called different names—a convulsive seizure, a grand mal seizure, or a generalized tonic clonic seizure, which is what most doctors refer to it as.


Other types of seizures vary widely, but there are some (complex partial seizures, for instance) that make people lose touch with their surroundings. People experiencing these types of seizures won’t know where they are or what they’re doing. They’ll seem to be in a daze and will be unable to talk or follow instructions. They might look as if they are chewing. They might pick at clothes, try to take them off or even just mumble or wander. The important thing is to just keep an eye on them and keep them safe until they return to normal, and then just offer them assistance and reassure them.

Epilepsy in Metropolitan Washington

An estimated 300 new cases of epilepsy are diagnosed every year. There are about 4,400 people in D.C. currently living with epilepsy. That’s nearly 1 in every 100 who are living with epilepsy. About 24,000 people living in DC will be diagnosed with epilepsy at some point in their lifetime.

For more information on epilepsy or the Foundation, visit www.epilepsyfoundation.org.