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Epilepsy and Seizures

What is Epilepsy LikeWho Gets Epilepsy?

Epilepsy, as you have learned, is a condition in which people experience seizures that are not caused by a high fever or other illness. There are at least thirty different types of seizures that people with epilepsy can experience.

Lydia is about to enter high school. There is so much to look forward to — new friends, new classes, clubs, football games, and maybe even dating. But there is also much to fear. Her friends are worrying about getting lost in the huge new school or forgetting the combination to their lockers. Lydia's fear, however, is about something else: Will she have a seizure at school?

“Why me? I want to be normal, just like every body else,” Lydia sighs.

“I had my first seizure when I was eleven years old,” she says. “I remember that Mom was nagging me to clean my room. I put on my favorite CD and turned up the volume to put me in the mood to clean. Suddenly, I felt a strange tingling in my stomach, and things got fuzzy. I don't remember anything after that. I woke up in an emergency room and didn't know what had happened.”

Lydia had had a seizure and fallen. Her parents ran to her room when they heard her fall. She was lying on the floor. Her body was stiff and her eyes were rolling up into her head. Her face was con torted, she was turning blue, and she was shak ing all over. When the shaking stopped, white bubbles of saliva started coming out of her mouth. Then she abruptly started to snore and appeared to be sleeping.

At the hospital, the doctor told Lydia's parents that she would need some tests. “Mom looked pale and scared,” Lydia recalls. “Dad blamed the music I had been listening to. As for me, I was so sleepy, I still didn't know what was happening.

“During the next few weeks, I made several vis its to different doctors and had a bunch of tests. A month later, I had another seizure. At that point, they told me I had something called epilepsy.”

Ben, age fifteen, was talking to his friends about yesterday's basketball game. He suddenly stopped in midsentence. His face went blank, and he began to blink very quickly. A moment later, he was “back” with his friends and took up his sen tence where he had left off. Like Lydia, Ben has epilepsy, and he had just had a seizure.

Sam describes one of his seizures this way: “I'm sitting in study hall and I begin to smell something like rotten eggs. Then everything goes black for a few seconds. Suddenly I start seeing what looks like mountains that are coming toward me. The scene stops really quickly, and I find myself still sitting in the same spot.” Sam does not lose consciousness during his seizures.

High school can be stressful for all teens. Trying to fit in is a common worry, and learning and making friends are important concerns. Your interactions with your classmates and teachers during high school can have a lifelong impact. Teens with epilepsy (or any medical condition) experience even more fears and stress than teens without this condition.

“My life changed after I had my seizures,” Lydia says sadly. “It started to revolve around vis its to doctors and taking my medications —I am so tired of taking them! I need to get extra rest and sleep, and I don't know if I'll be able to keep up with everything and everyone in high school. What should I tell my new friends? Oh, God, I hope I don't have a seizure in class.”

Who Gets Epilepsy?

There are 2.3 million Americans diagnosed with epilepsy, and an estimated 50 million worldwide. Seizures can begin at any age, but about half of all people with epilepsy are first diagnosed when they are under twenty-five. About one-third of people with epilepsy are under eighteen.

People who have seizures are not sick or abnormal. They are not retarded, crazy, or mentally ill. They look like other people. Seizures rarely cause brain damage or death. The only time people die during a seizure is if the seizure does not stop or if the person dies from an injury that occurs during a seizure, perhaps as a result of falling or drowning. If a convulsive seizure does not stop within five minutes or if a person has a series of seizures one after another, it is considered a medical emergency, and immediate medical help is needed. This condition is called status epilepticus, and it can be dangerous.

You may have heard that people can swallow their tongues during a seizure. This is not true. People may bite their tongue during a seizure, but they cannot swallow it. They may also lose control of their bowels or bladder, which is embarrassing but not dangerous.

Not all seizures are convulsive, and with many types of seizures, people do not lose consciousness. Some people have seizures without knowing it. Memory gaps and periods of staring blankly can be signs of seizures, as can hearing strange sounds, having visions, mumbling, picking at clothing, experiencing muscle jerks, and suddenly having strong, unexplained sensations of fear, anger, or panic. Often it is only after someone with epilepsy notices a pattern of feelings, sensations, or behavior that he or she will seek treatment. Sometimes observers may think a person having a seizure is drunk or on drugs, and people with epilepsy have even been arrested after having a seizure.

When Amy was in second grade, her teacher noticed that Amy stared a lot while smacking her lips and fumbling with her hands. Her mother also noticed this at home. Amy's parents took her to the doctor, who gave her some tests and deter mined that she was having seizures. The doctor started Amy on medication. Her teacher soon reported that Amy was more alert in class, and her mother said she was less clumsy at home. If Amy had not been examined and treated, her grades might have been affected, and her behav ior would have been considered “odd.”

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaEpilepsy