Medications Commonly Prescribed for Epilepsy and Seizures

Medically Reviewed By Alexandra Perez, PharmD, MBA, BCGP
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Epilepsy is a condition that causes recurrent seizures. It happens because of disrupted electrical activity in the brain. Anti-epilepsy medications (AEDs) are the main treatment for epilepsy. There are several different types of seizures that can occur in epilepsy. They range in severity, symptoms, and duration. Around 7 out of 10 people with epilepsy can control seizures with AEDs, according to the National Health Service.

Some anti-epileptic drugs work better than others for the different seizure types. The type of seizure you have will play a role in your epilepsy medication options.

What are the types of anti-epileptic drugs?

There is an assortment of pills.
Marc Tran/Stocksy United

Anti-epileptic drugs (AEDS) have many different mechanisms. Some change how neurotransmitters send signals in the brain. Others change the way ions move in and out of brain cells. This affects how electrical activity travels through the cells.

There are two general classes of anti-epileptic drugs, also known as anti-seizure medications. They include broad-spectrum AEDs and narrow-spectrum AEDs.

Learn about the types of epilepsy.

What are broad-spectrum anti-epileptic drugs?

Doctors prescribe broad-spectrum anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) to treat a wide variety of seizures.

Examples of broad-spectrum AEDs include:

  • clonazepam
  • lamotrigine
  • levetiracetam
  • topiramate
  • valproic acid

Clonazepam

Clonazepam is a long-acting benzodiazepine that can treat several types of seizures. You may need to take it up to three times a day.

Side effects that commonly occur include:

  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • problems with memory or thinking

Lamotrigine

Lamotrigine treats a wide variety of seizures.

Common side effects include: 

  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • stomach upset

A rash, which can be serious, can occur with lamotrigine. It is more likely when the dose increases too quickly.

Levetiracetam

Levetiracetam can treat many different types of seizures and comes in several dosage forms.

It may have less effect on memory and thinking than other seizure drugs. A small 2021 study into the effects of levetiracetam in people with Alzheimer’s disease and seizures found that it actually improved memory.

Side effects you may experience with levetiracetam include:

Topiramate

Topiramate is available in several dosage forms, including a capsule you can open and sprinkle on food. You take it once or twice a day, depending on the dosage form.

Side effects you may experience include:

Valproic acid

Valproic acid has many different dosage forms, including liquid, tablets, and sprinkle options. There is also a once-daily extended-release option.

Common side effects of valproic acid include:

Valproic acid can also cause serious birth defects. It is important to let your doctor know if you are pregnant or are thinking of having a baby.

What are narrow-spectrum anti-epileptic drugs?

Doctors prescribe narrow-spectrum anti-epileptic drugs to treat partial or focal seizures. A partial or focal seizure is a type of seizure that affects one side of the brain. A generalized seizure, on the other hand, affects both sides of the brain.

Examples of narrow-spectrum AEDs include:

  • carbamazepine
  • gabapentin
  • oxcarbazepine
  • phenytoin
  • pregabalin

Carbamazepine

Carbamazepine is available in immediate-release, chewable, liquid, and extended-release forms. You can take the regular tablet 2–4 times a day or the extended-release tablet 2 times a day.

Common side effects of carbamazepine include:

Gabapentin

Gabapentin is available in both extended-release and immediate-release forms, both as a liquid and a tablet. If you take antacids, it is important to take them at least 2 hours before you take gabapentin.

Common side effects of gabapentin include:

Oxcarbazepine

Oxcarbazepine is available as a tablet and as a liquid. It is also available as an extended-release tablet. You will usually take the regular tablet or liquid twice a day, typically every 12 hours.

Side effects with oxcarbazepine can include:

Phenytoin

Phenytoin is available as a chewable tablet, liquid, and extended-release capsule. You can take the tablet or liquid 2–3 times a day.

Side effects with phenytoin can include:

  • skin problems
  • unwanted hair growth
  • unusual movements

Pregabalin

Pregabalin is available as capsules, liquids, or extended-release tablets. You will usually take the capsule or liquid 2–3 times a day, or once daily for the extended-release tablet.

Side effects of pregabalin are similar to side effects of gabapentin.

What are the types of epilepsy rescue medication?

In addition to anti-epilepsy drugs, your doctor may prescribe medication to stop seizures immediately. Taking “rescue medication” is a type of seizure rescue therapy.

Epilepsy rescue medication focuses on preventing a seizure from developing into an emergency situation.

Seizure rescue therapy involves administering medication to stop seizures immediately. These are sometimes known as “rescue medications” as the focus is on preventing a seizure from developing into an emergency situation.

Examples of epilepsy rescue medications include:

  • intranasal midazolam (Nayzilam)
  • intranasal diazepam (Valtoco)
  • rectal diazepam (Diastat AcuDial)

Learn about safety during an epileptic seizure.

How long does epilepsy medication take to work?

How long it takes anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) to begin working can depend on the type of medication and also the individual person.

According to the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, it can take days or weeks for AEDs to reach the right dose. It is important to take the dosage your doctor has prescribed at the time they indicate. You will usually need to take the medication at the same time each day.

What are some other treatments for epilepsy?

Although anti-epileptic drugs are the first line of treatment for epilepsy, your doctor may recommend additional treatments.

Other treatments for epilepsy include:

  • surgery to remove the part of the brain where the seizures originate
  • vagus nerve stimulation, which involves implanting a small device under your skin to control the vagus nerve
  • deep brain stimulation, which involves implanting electrodes via small holes in the skull to block the signals that cause seizures
  • dietary therapy, which can include the ketogenic diet

Learn more about epilepsy treatments.

When should I see a doctor?

Contact your doctor to discuss your current epilepsy treatment and to find out which other options may be available to you.

You should seek medical advice if you experience side effects of any current treatment.

Frequently asked questions

Here are some frequently asked questions about epilepsy medications.

What is the most common epilepsy medication?

There is no individual anti-epilepsy medication that doctors prescribe more than others. This is because there are different types of seizure medications that may be beneficial for some people more than others. Your doctor will be able to advise on which medications they recommend for your individual circumstances.

Can an epileptic person drive?

The law about driving if you have epilepsy can vary from state to state. It is important to be aware of the laws in your local area, as some states may require you to be seizure-free for a certain period of time.

The Epilepsy Foundation has a database of driving laws by state for people who experience seizures. Consult with your doctor for more information.

Find out more about driving laws and epilepsy.

What drugs should epileptics avoid?

There are many different types of AEDs, and each person’s circumstances are different. This means that you should consult your doctor or pharmacist before taking any new medication, including over-the-counter medication. They will be able to advise on any known side effects that may occur if you take certain medications alongside your AEDs.

Summary

Anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs), or anti-seizure medications, are the main treatment for epilepsy. This includes broad-spectrum-spectrum AEDs for a range of epilepsy types and narrow-spectrum AEDs, which typically treat partial seizures.

Your doctor may also recommend rescue medication. The purpose of rescue medication is to prevent a seizure from becoming a medical emergency.

Contact your doctor to discuss your current medication or to find out what other epilepsy treatment options they may recommend for you.

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Medical Reviewer: Alexandra Perez, PharmD, MBA, BCGP
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 23
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