Types of Seizures: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Nancy Hammond, M.D.
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Seizures may sound scary, but they are actually fairly common. A seizure can occur as a result of a high fever, from certain medical conditions, and sometimes without a clear explanation. About 1 in 10 people will have some kind of seizure in their lifetime. Here is more information on types of seizures, what happens when you have a seizure, and how to recognize a seizure. 

What are seizures? 

Distorted image of woman looking in the mirror
Sadie Culberson/Stocksy United

The Epilepsy Foundation explains that a seizure is a change in the regular electrical activity in the brain. Our brains work through electrical activity, but if there is too much or too little activity in between cells, a seizure can occur.

A seizure is considered a symptom of something else happening in the body, such as a medical condition, a high fever in some cases, or an injury. 

How a seizure looks will depend on how much or how little of the electrical activity occurs. Where this activity occurs in the brain is also important. A seizure can present as: 

  • staring without focus and blinking
  • muscle spasms
  • falling to the ground with uncontrolled body movement
  • loss of consciousness
  • twitching
  • short episodes of uncontrolled movement in certain parts of the body

Most seizures only last a few minutes. They usually do not require medical attention unless the person gets hurt or is not able to wake up after the seizure. 
However, if it is the first time a seizure has occurred, the person should always be assessed by a doctor to determine the cause of the seizure and check for any underlying issues. 

Causes of seizures

The underlying cause behind a seizure can range from structural irregularities in the brain to an outside reason, like a brain injury. 

The Epilepsy Foundation breaks down the most common causes of seizures by age.

Causes of seizures in infants include:

  • congenital conditions, such as Down syndrome
  • oxygen deprivation during birth
  • low blood sugar
  • electrolyte imbalances
  • brain hemorrhage
  • harmful substance misuse occurring during pregnancy

Causes of seizures in children include:

Causes of seizures in young adults include:

  • congenital conditions, such as Down syndrome
  • genetic factors
  • brain disease
  • head trauma

Causes of seizures in adults ages 65 and older include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • head trauma
  • stroke
  • brain tumor

Febrile seizures in children

It is important to note that in children between 6 months to 5 years old, febrile seizures — which are seizures caused by a fever — are fairly common. They occur in 2–5% of children before the age of 5. These types of seizures tend to have genetic origins and run in a person’s family.

One seizure caused by a fever is not considered epilepsy, because it has a clear cause. However, if repeated and prolonged febrile seizures occur, the child may be more likely to develop a certain type of epilepsy, so be sure to visit a doctor if febrile seizures are occurring. 

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes (NINDS) explains that febrile seizures:

  • are most common around the age of 2
  • tend to occur with common childhood infections, such as a cold or the flu
  • usually occur with temperatures over 101ºF

The NINDS notes that a short febrile seizure is not likely to cause any long-term damage. However, if your child has a seizure that lasts longer than 5 minutes, is injured in any way by the seizure, does not seem to be alert after the seizure, you should seek medical attention right away. 
Most febrile seizures do not cause long-term health issues. Whether a child experiences long or short febrile seizures, research indicates that most children will recover completely. Therefore, it is said to be unlikely to develop epilepsy from febrile seizures. The bigger risk factors for developing epilepsy would be frequent, prolonged seizures or damage to the hippocampus from a previous seizure, which can cause temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE).

You should also contact a doctor if your child is having frequent, prolonged seizures.

Types of seizures

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains, there are two main types of seizures. The first type is generalized seizures, which affect both sides of the brain. The second type is focal seizures, which affect only one part of the brain. 

Generalized seizures

There are two types of generalized seizures that can occur:

  • Absence (petit mal seizures): When these seizures happen, the person having the seizure may appear to be be blinking rapidly or staring somewhere without focus. 
  • Tonic-clonic (grand mal seizures): These are the more well-known seizures. A person experiencing a grand mal seizure may fall, lose consciousness, and have uncontrolled muscle spasms

Focal seizures

  • Focal awake: This is the “smallest” type of seizure and can lead to twitching and unusual sensations, such as a change in taste or smell. 
  • Focal unaware: A person experiencing this seizure may not respond to questions or be able to do anything for a few minutes. They may appear dazed.
  • Focal to bilateral tonic-clonic: This type of seizure starts in one part of the brain and spreads to other parts. Because of this, a person having this seizure will actually have two seizures in a row. For instance, the person may start twitching, then experience larger convulsions

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder of the brain that causes unprovoked, frequent seizures. Typically, epilepsy is diagnosed after someone has two or more seizures with no other explanation. 

The Epilepsy Foundation notes that 1 in 2,000 people will develop epilepsy every year. This condition is more common in young children and people ages 55 and older. It is also slightly more common in men, compared with women. Worldwide, epilepsy affects more than 65 million people. 

Epilepsy is also more likely to happen in: 

  • areas with lower socioeconomic status
  • Black people 
  • Hispanic people 
  • veterans who have served in combat 

There is no universal cause for epilepsy. It can also cause different symptoms and levels of severity in different people. Sometimes, epilepsy is caused by a head injury or another type of medical condition. In some cases, children who have epilepsy may experience fewer or no seizures as they get older. 

How to tell if someone is having a seizure

According to the CDC, most seizures are actually not medical emergencies. In fact, if someone is having a seizure, in general, you do not need to do anything other than monitor that person. 

The CDC explains that you should call 911 for a seizure if: 

  • It is the first time the person has had a seizure.
  • The person is having trouble breathing or waking up after the seizure.
  • The seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes.
  • The individual has another seizure very soon after the first one. 
  • The person gets hurt during the seizure. 
  • The seizure happens in the water. 
  • The person has another medical condition, such as diabetes
  • The person is pregnant. 

It is very important to never attempt to hold someone down or restrain them in any way if they are having a seizure. Instead, the best thing to do if you witness a seizure is to monitor the person and make sure they are alert after the seizure.

If they are having a grand mal seizure, you can move objects out of their way that may injure them, but do not try to hold the person having a seizure. Do not put anything in the mouth of the person seizing. Try to roll the person on their side, if safe and possible to do so. If the individual does not seem fully awake and alert after the seizure is over, call 911. 

Summary

Seizures can be alarming to witness, but they are fairly common. About 1 in 10 people will have some kind of seizure over their lifetime.

There are different types of seizures. Sometimes, a seizure can be difficult to spot because it can look like the person is staring off in the distance or losing focus for a few minutes. Other types of seizures will be more obvious. 

In many cases, a seizure does not require calling 911. However, if the seizure lasts more than 5 minutes, if the person having a seizure gets hurt, is pregnant, or has another medical condition, seek immediate medical attention for them. 

Additionally, if it is the first time a person has had a seizure, they should be assessed by a doctor to ensure there is not an underlying reason for the seizure that requires treatment. 

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Medical Reviewer: Nancy Hammond, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 1
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.