What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain. People with epilepsy have brain cells that create abnormal electricity, causing seizures. In some cases, a seizure may cause jerking, uncontrolled movements and loss of consciousness. In other cases, seizures cause only a period of confusion, a staring spell or muscle spasms.

A single seizure is not considered epilepsy. People with epilepsy have repeated episodes of seizures.

Epilepsy is not a mental illness, and it is not a sign of low intelligence. It is also not contagious. Between seizures, a person with epilepsy is no different from anyone else.

What should I do when someone has a seizure?

If you have epilepsy, you may want to share the following information with your family, friends and coworkers. If someone near you has a seizure, use the following general guidelines:

  • Stay calm.
  • Don't move the person to another place.
  • Don't try to keep the person from moving or shaking.
  • Don't try to wake the person by shouting at or shaking them.
  • Take away items that could cause injury if the person falls or bumps into them.
  • Don't move the person to another place.
  • Gently turn the person on his or her side so any fluid in the mouth can safely come out. Never try to force the person's mouth open or put anything in it.
  • Place something soft (such as a pillow) under his or her head.
  • Most seizures aren't life-threatening. You don't need to call a doctor or an ambulance unless the person isn't known to have epilepsy or unless the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes.
  • When the seizure is over, watch the person for signs of confusion. Allow the person to rest or sleep if he or she wishes.

If I have epilepsy, do I have to take medicine every day?

Yes. You must take your medicine every day, even when you aren't having seizures or when you think you won't have a seizure. To prevent seizures, you have to take the medicine regularly, just as your doctor tells you.

What should I do if I forget to take my medicine?

Usually you should take your medicine as soon as you realize you forgot a dose. If more than 24 hours have passed since your last dose, call your doctor for instructions.

Should I take extra medicine if I think I'm about to have a seizure?

No. The amount of medicine you take for your epilepsy is carefully set for your own specific needs. No extra medicine should be taken without your doctor's approval.

Will I have to take medicine forever?

It may be possible for some people with epilepsy to stop taking medicine. However, this decision must be made by your doctor. Before you and your doctor can decide to stop the medicine, several questions should be considered. These include how quickly your seizures were controlled, how long you have been free of seizures and if you have other illnesses that may affect your problem.

Can I take other drugs while taking medicine for epilepsy?

Because many drugs affect the ability of your epilepsy medicine to control your seizures, ask your doctor or pharmacist before taking other drugs, even drugs you can buy without a prescription.

Can I drink alcohol if I have epilepsy?

You should avoid drinking alcohol if you have epilepsy. Alcohol can make it easier to have a seizure and can also affect your epilepsy medicine. Ask your doctor.

What if I become pregnant?

Uncontrolled seizures can affect the unborn baby. Epilepsy medicine may also affect the unborn baby. Decisions about taking medicine during pregnancy must be made by you and your doctor, after talking about the risks and the benefits.

Can I drive if my seizures are under control?

Laws about driving for people with epilepsy are different in each state. Ask your local epilepsy foundation or ask your doctor.

When should I call my doctor?

  • The seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes.
  • The way you usually feel during and after having a seizure changes.
  • It takes you longer than normal to recover after having a seizure.
  • Your seizures become more severe or happen more frequently.
  • A second seizure immediately occurs after the first.
  • You have a sudden headache, or numbness or weakness in one side of your body or problems with your vision or speech right before you have a seizure. These could be signs of a stroke.
  • Any time you change your seizure medicine or take any other medicines.

More Information

For more information talk to your doctor.

Other Organizations

  • Epilepsy Foundation 
    4351 Garden City Dr. 
    Landover, MD 20785 


Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff.

American Academy of Family Physicians

Reviewed/Updated: 12/07
Created: 09/94