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Frequently Asked Questions

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a general term that refers to a tendency to have recurrent seizures. There are various types of seizures. People with diagnosed epilepsy often have only one type of seizure, although some experience more than one type. The term "epilepsy" can be used interchangeably with "seizure disorder." Epilepsy is not contagious and poses no risk to others.

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What are seizures?

A seizure occurs when abnormal electrical activity in the brain causes an involuntary change in body movement or function, sensation, awareness, or behavior. A seizure can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. There are more than 20 different types of seizures. These types can be broadly classified into two groups: 1) primary generalized seizures and 2) partial seizures.

Symptoms experienced by a person during a seizure depend on where in the brain the disturbance in electrical activity occurs. A person having a tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizure may cry out, lose consciousness, and fall to the ground, and have rigidity and muscle jerks. A person having a complex partial seizure may appear confused or dazed and will not be able to respond to questions or direction. Some people, however, have seizures that are not noticeable to others. Sometimes, the only clue that a person is having an absence (petit mal) seizure is rapid blinking or a few seconds of staring into space.

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What causes epilepsy?

Epilepsy can arise as a result of many different conditions that affect the brain. Examples of these conditions include stroke (resulting from a blockage of the blood supply to parts of the brain), complications during childbirth, infections (such as meningitis, encephalitis, cysticercosis, or brain abscess), head trauma, and certain genetic disorders. Often, definite causes of epilepsy cannot be identified; in these instances, the cause may be labeled "idiopathic" or "cryptogenic." Hereditary factors may contribute to the development of idiopathic epilepsy.

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Can epilepsy be prevented?

Sometimes — but not always — epilepsy is preventable. Epilepsy can be prevented in children and adults by avoiding sports-related injuries to the head and by wearing helmets and seatbelts to prevent head injuries associated with a bicycle or motor vehicle accident. For more information on preventing head injuries, please see

Women can prevent epilepsy in their children by obtaining proper prenatal care to avoid problems during pregnancy and child birth. For more information on a healthy pregnancy, please see

Severe lead poisoning can cause seizures, and lesser degrees of poisoning can adversely affect children's neurological and intellectual development. Fortunately, severe lead poisoning is now rare in the United States. Individuals should follow general recommendations for reducing exposure to lead-based products at home or at work that can cause seizures. For more information on preventing lead exposure, please see

Alcohol withdrawal can cause seizures, and long-term alcohol abuse may contribute to the development of epilepsy. Individuals should avoid excessive alcohol abuse that can cause seizures. For more information on alcohol abuse or treatment for alcohol abuse, please see

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What is the burden of epilepsy in the U.S.?

Estimates of the number of people with epilepsy in the U.S. range from 1.4 to 2.7 million people, depending on the diagnostic criteria and study method used to identify people with epilepsy. New cases of epilepsy are most common among children and the elderly.

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How is epilepsy treated?

Treatment methods control seizures for most people with epilepsy. Antiepileptic drugs are the most common form of treatment. With certain types of epilepsy, when medication is not effective, surgery may be. Another option is vagus nerve stimulation, a recently approved therapy in which an electrical device is implanted in the affected person's shoulder to periodically stimulate a cranial nerve. For persons with certain types of seizures, a special high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet may reduce seizures if other treatments do not work.

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What resources are available for women with epilepsy?

Women with epilepsy face unique challenges associated with their reproductive cycle, including hormonal changes and issues associated with pregnancy and menopause. The National Epilepsy Foundation has a special initiative, Women and Epilepsy*, that focuses on improving health outcomes in women with epilepsy.

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Can epilepsy be fatal?

Yes, epilepsy can be fatal. A person with epilepsy can die as a result of illness, injury or trauma related to his/her condition or suddenly, for no apparent reason. The latter occurrence is often referred to as Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP). Optimal seizure control and some common sense measures can reduce the risk of epilepsy related mortality.

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What is known about Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP)?

SUDEP refers to the sudden, unexpected death of someone with epilepsy and may account for 217% of deaths in this population in the U.S (Ficker 2000). SUDEP is suspected when a person with epilepsy who was otherwise healthy, and for whom no other cause of death can be found. SUDEP typically occurs between the ages 2040, but is rare in patients with new onset epilepsy (Tomson 2005). While low and high-risk patient groups have been identified, no single risk factor is common to all cases of SUDEP. However, seizure control appears to be critically important to prevent SUDEP (Tellez-Zenteno et al. 2005; Tomson et al. 2005). More information on SUDEP can is available on the following Web sites: Epilepsy Foundation*, Raising Awareness, Involvement and Support for Epilepsy (RAISE)* ,*, and*.


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* Links to non-Federal organizations are provided solely as a service to our users. Links do not constitute an endorsement of any organization by CDC or the Federal Government, and none should be inferred. The CDC is not responsible for the content of the individual organization Web pages found at this link.

Date last modified: 7/31/2007
Date last reviewed: 7/31/2007
Content source: Division of Adult and Community Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

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