Seizures are sudden electrical disturbances in the brain that cause temporary changes in movement, behavior, and consciousness. While seizures can be a one-time occurrence—often induced by strokes, head injuries, drug withdrawal, or high fever—when a person has reoccurring seizures without an obvious cause, it’s classified as epilepsy.
Seizures are surprisingly common. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, “About 1 in 100 people in the U.S. has had a single unprovoked seizure or has been diagnosed with epilepsy.” Seizures can be terrifying experiences, both for the victim and for the people around them, but knowing how to react will help you stay calm and keep further harm from coming to the victim.
How to Recognize a Seizure
The signs of a seizure will depend on the type of seizure, but look for:
- Staring or “zoning out”
- Loss of consciousness
- Jerking movement of the limbs
- Trouble breathing or inability to breathe
- Loss of control of bodily functions
What to Do When Someone Has a Seizure
Once you’ve identified that someone around you is having a seizure, stay calm, and do your best to keep others around you from crowding the victim. Note when the seizure started, or have another bystander keep track of the time. Not only is this important information for doctors and the victim to know, but it can also help you determine if the seizure is a medical emergency.
Make sure the victim is laying down in a safe place and there’s nothing around them that could hurt them—protect them from heights, sharp objects, and corners. If they’re not awake or aware of what’s happening, lay the person on their side so saliva or vomit doesn’t obstruct their breathing. Cushion their head with something soft, and stay with the victim throughout their seizure. Once they’re fully awake, reassure them of their safety and explain to them what happened.
During a seizure, don’t hold the victim down, and don’t put anything in their mouth—despite popular myth, you can’t actually swallow your tongue. Putting something in a seizure victim’s mouth could cause them to break their teeth or choke on the foreign object.
When to Call 911
Knowing when a seizure is abnormal is just as important. Call 911 if:
- The seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes
- The victim has repeated seizures
- The victim has trouble breathing even after the seizure has passed
- The victim is injured
- This is the victim’s first seizure
- The seizure occurs in water
- The victim is pregnant, diabetic, or suffering from cardiovascular disease