Epilepsy | Symptoms

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What are the symptoms of epilepsy?

The primary symptom of epilepsy is seizures. A single seizure is not considered epilepsy. People who have epilepsy have repeated episodes of seizures.

There are many different types of seizures, and they each cause different symptoms. Some common types of seizures include the following:

  • Generalized tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizures: This type of seizure affects the whole brain. During the seizure, the muscles in the body become rigid (stiff), then shake and contract (called convulsions). The person having the seizure usually loses consciousness (faints). He or she may also clench the jaw, bite the tongue or cheek, or lose control of the bladder.
  • Absence (or petit mal) seizures: This type of seizure affects the whole brain, and usually only lasts a few seconds. During the seizure, a person may have a staring spell, be unaware of his or her surroundings, suddenly stop talking or moving, or have small changes in muscle movements.
  • Partial (focal) seizures: This type of seizure affects only one part of the brain. The symptoms may vary, depending on where in the brain the seizure starts. For example, a partial seizure may cause changes in emotions, or to the senses (for example, hallucinations, numbness, tingling, or other changes to vision, taste, smell, touch, or hearing). This type of seizure may also cause muscle contractions (for example, causing the person to move the head in an unusual way, or jerk an arm or a leg). Or, the seizure may cause staring spells, sometimes with unusual repetitive movements, such as moving the mouth or the lips, chewing or swallowing, or hand movements.

Before a seizure begins, some people experience dizziness, emotional changes, or changes in vision (such as hallucinations), smell (smelling an odor that isn’t there), or touch (such as numbness or tingling). This is called an aura.

When should I call my doctor?

Call your doctor if:

  • You have a seizure that lasts longer than 5 minutes.
  • You injured yourself during the seizure.
  • 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 are pregnant.
  • You have diabetes.
  • You have a sudden headache, 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.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 04/14
Created: 09/94

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