Can You Die From a Seizure? What to Know About the Risks

Medically Reviewed By Susan W. Lee, DO
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Seizures can sometimes cause death. However, death due to seizures alone is uncommon. Seizures may lead to death due to a variety of factors. These include changes to breathing or heart rate during or after seizures and any harm from environmental dangers that are present during a seizure. People can experience seizures for different reasons. Some people may experience seizures as a typical symptom of epilepsy, whereas other people may experience seizures for reasons other than epilepsy. Both causes of seizures can result in death.

This article will discuss how seizures can lead to death, including the causes and risk factors. It will also discuss reducing your risk of death from seizures and answer some frequently asked questions.

Types of seizures

A person lies in bed under a duvet with their eyes closed.
Karan Kapoor/Getty Images

Causes of seizures can include:

  • epilepsy
  • high fever, causing febrile seizures
  • low blood sugar
  • withdrawal from alcohol or drugs
  • nonepileptic or psychogenic nonepileptic seizures

Some people experience psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES). These are seizures that are psychological, meaning they differ from epileptic seizures, which are electrophysiological.

It is possible to experience both PNES and epilepsy.

Learn more about nonepilpetic seizures and other seizure types not due to epilepsy.

How seizures cause death

Causes of death during or after a seizure include:

  • Apnea: Seizures can cause pauses in breathing, known as apnea. If the pauses are too long, this can reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood. Low blood oxygen can be life threatening or cause permanent damage.
  • Suffocation: If a person is having a convulsive seizure or has something blocking their airway, such as food, vomit, or other items, it can lead to suffocation or choking.
  • Aspiration pneumonia: This occurs when fluids enter the respiratory system and cause infection. It can happen during a seizure if a person aspirates saliva, blood, or vomit.
  • Heart function: Seizures can impact the function of the heart, causing unsteady heart rhythms, slow heart rate, cardiac arrest, or heart attack.
  • Status epilepticus: This is when a seizure lasts a long time or does not stop without intervention. This can cause brain damage or death.
  • Multiple factors: Sometimes, death can occur from a seizure due to a combination of different internal or physical factors. For example, a person may experience both impaired heart function and apnea.
  • External harm: If a person is having a seizure or has a seizure-related condition, they may encounter harm from external sources. This can include physical injury, such as from falling or drowning during a seizure.

Sudden unexplained death and seizures

Sudden unexplained death in epilepsy (SUDEP) refers to when people with epilepsy die for reasons not including injury, drowning, or other known external sources of injury or trauma.

While researchers theorize that it may be possible for some people to experience SUDEP from seizures not related to epilepsy, there is little evidence of it having happened. For example, there is no reported case of it happening due to febrile seizures, according to a 2017 study.

Frequency of death due to seizures and SUDEP

There are limited statistics citing the overall risk of death from all kinds of seizures, including both epileptic seizures and seizures that are not due to epilepsy.

Deaths from febrile seizures may be rare. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service notes that a study researched more than 1.5 million children with a medical history of febrile seizures. They indicated that there was no related increased risk of death in childhood or adulthood.

Researchers from a 2017 study into the risk factors for SUDEP suggest that SUDEP is rare in effectively managed epilepsy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that it may occur in 1.16 out of every 1000 people who experience epilepsy, although these estimates vary.

SUDEP may be a more common cause of death for those who experience drug-resistant epilepsy. However, generally, SUDEP may account for 2–18% of all epilepsy-related deaths in a year.

Overall, the risk of passing away prematurely for people with epilepsy is up to 3 times higher than the general population, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Risk factors for death from seizures

The factors that may increase your risk of death from some types of seizures include:

  • having a higher seizure burden, which includes factors such as the frequency, severity, and unpredictability of seizures
  • experiencing tonic-clonic seizures as grand mal or generalized convulsive seizures
  • not receiving effective treatment or control for epileptic seizures, such as missing doses of medication, vomiting or diarrhea after taking medication, or not taking antiepileptic drug (AED) treatment
  • having or requiring polytherapy, which is the use of several drug treatments
  • having an intellectual disability
  • being in a prone position
  • experiencing seizures during sleep
  • sleeping or living alone, and not sharing a bedroom
  • having seizures from a young age
  • living for a long time with epilepsy
  • drinking alcohol, or having a history of substance misuse or dependence on alcohol

Learn more about treatment options for epilepsy.

Risk prevention

While not all deaths due to seizures are preventable, there are some measures you can take to help protect yourself.

These measures include techniques to reduce the frequency of experiencing seizures, such as:

  • avoiding known triggers, such as flashing lights or nutritional deficiencies
  • getting enough quality sleep
  • taking your medication and following your treatment plan as described for any conditions
  • contacting your doctor for advice regarding worsening symptoms or missed doses of medication
  • seeking medical help for a body temperature 104ºF (40ºC) or above in healthy adults, or 100.4ºF (38ºC) in healthy children

Read more about fever and when to seek medical care.

If your seizures are unavoidable, you can also reduce your risk by:

  • training people you spend time with in first aid for seizures
  • wearing medical ID jewelry
  • removing hazards around the home, such as:
    • trip hazards
    • exposed sources of heat
    • hard flooring
    • uncovered or unpadded corners on hard surfaces such as counters
    • unfenced bodies of water such as pools or ponds
  • using safety glass around the home, such as in shower screens
  • locking upstairs windows or doors
  • only swimming or being in water when a trained lifeguard is present
  • avoiding taking baths, and showering instead
  • using anti-suffocation pillows and avoiding lying on your stomach while sleeping
  • using sound monitors or seizure alert or detection devices to alert people close by

If your condition is not effectively controlled, or if you experience any change in symptoms, contact your doctor for advice.

Learn more about fever and when to seek help.

Call 911 for the following symptoms

Seek emergency medical care if:

  • it is the person’s first time having a seizure
  • the seizure is lasting longer than is typical for them
  • the seizure lasts 5 minutes or more
  • the person does not regain complete consciousness
  • the person becomes injured during the seizure

Read more about safety and first aid during a seizure.

Outlook

Seizures can be life threatening or cause permanent injury. They can also impact your quality of life.

However, proper diagnosis and effective treatment may lower risks and improve quality of life.

For example, researchers estimate that over 80% of people with PNES will have fewer seizures after receiving a diagnosis. Also, a small number will experience a complete stop to PNES episodes.

The WHO estimates that up to 70% of people with epilepsy could live without experiencing seizures after diagnosis and effective treatment.

It may sound intimidating when clinicians discuss an increase in the risk of death compared to people who do not experience seizures. However, the risk of death for a healthy person is already low. As a result, numerical increases in this level for people with seizures can still in some cases be relatively small statistically.

Other frequently asked questions

Susan W. Lee, D.O., has reviewed the following frequently asked questions.

Can you die from a seizure in your sleep?

It is possible to die from a seizure in your sleep. In fact, sleeping alone increases the risk of death from seizures.

To reduce the risk of injury from seizures during sleep, try the following measures:

  • Make your sleep environment safe by removing sharp or potentially dangerous objects from around the bed, such as soft pillows. Place mattresses on the floor if there is a risk of falling.
  • Avoid lying on your stomach while sleeping.
  • Share a room.
  • Use sound monitors or seizure alert or detection devices to alert people close by.

What kind of seizures cause death?

Both epileptic seizures and seizures not related to epilepsy can cause death.

Certain types of epileptic seizures may present a higher risk of death. These can include generalized convulsive seizures, which some people may know as tonic-clonic or grand mal seizures.

Having seizures with higher frequency, severity, or unpredictability is also a risk factor for death.

Learn more about the different types of epilepsy and epileptic seizures.

Can you die from a grand mal seizure?

It is possible to die from a grand mal seizure. Many clinicians now refer to grand mal seizures as “tonic-clonic” seizures.

According to a 2020 nationwide study, experiencing tonic-clonic seizures presents a particular risk of death. Researchers suggest that people experiencing generalized tonic-clonic seizures are around 27 times more likely to experience SUDEP than other people with epilepsy.

How long can a seizure last before causing brain damage?

Status epilepticus refers to when seizures last for 5 minutes or more. This includes continuous seizure or repetitive seizures without a regain of consciousness during the seizures. These seizures can cause brain damage and can be life threatening.

It is also possible to sustain brain damage during a seizure due to external factors. One example is if you receive a head injury during a seizure.

Summary

It is possible to die from a seizure. This can be due to seizures that cause difficulty breathing or changes to heart rate, but can also occur due to injuries sustained during a seizure.

While seizures can be life threatening, the risk of dying can be relatively low with effective diagnosis and treatment.

Contact your doctor if you have any new symptoms. Also, contact your doctor if you have concerns that the treatment for already existing seizures is not effective enough.

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Medical Reviewer: Susan W. Lee, DO
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 29
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