A person rubs their temples during a headache.

Epilepsy is defined as an interruption in the electrical activity in the brain that disrupts its normal function. This disruption causes seizures. A person is considered to have epilepsy if they have at least two unprovoked seizures occurring more than 24 hours apart. Most people don’t know why they have epilepsy. Understanding the causes and triggers of seizures can help lessen the frequency and feel more in control.

Seizure Causes

Certain conditions can upset the electrical activity in the brain leading to and causing epileptic seizures.

Common causes of seizures include:

  • Head injury.
  • Stroke.
  • Hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) in the brain.
  • Brain tumor or lesion.
  • Infection, such as meningitis or encephalitis.
  • Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs.

Your doctor will perform tests and brain scans to help determine possible epilepsy causes and work with you to develop a treatment plan to manage epilepsy.

Seizure Triggers

In some cases, you may not find the exact cause of seizures or antiseizure or antiepilepsy medicines may not prevent every seizure. It’s important to find out what triggers a seizure as well as warning signs that you’re about to have one. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, common triggers for epilepsy include:

  • Poor sleep — being overtired, not sleeping well, not getting enough sleep, disrupted sleep.
  • Illness (both with and without fever).
  • Flashing bright lights or patterns.
  • Alcohol use or alcohol withdrawal.
  • Drug use, particularly cocaine and other recreational drugs like ecstasy.
  • High levels of stress.
  • Menstrual cycle or other hormonal changes.
  • Not eating well or going a long time without eating.
  • Dehydration, not enough fluids.
  • Low blood sugar, particularly if you are living with diabetes.
  • Specific foods such as too much caffeine or other products that may aggravate seizures.
  • Use of certain medicines or missing medicine doses.

Sometimes seizures are more likely to happen at a certain time of day, such as at night while you’re sleeping. Keep a journal of your seizures to figure out your triggers. Note the time of day, what you were doing, how you felt, how long you slept that day, and whether any of the common triggers were present.

You also may want to include notes on what you ate that day to see if any foods trigger your seizures. Some people find that a ketogenic diet, which is low in carbohydrates and high in fat, helps to control seizure activity.

Seizure Warning Signs

Many people experience feelings, sensations, or changes in behavior in the hours or days before a seizure. This is called an aura. An aura is your body’s warning signal that a seizure is coming. Some common warning signs of seizures include:

  • Sensitivity to smells, sounds, or sights.
  • Anxiety.
  • Nausea or a rising feeling in your stomach.
  • Dizziness.
  • Daydreaming or periods of fuzziness, confusion, or forgetfulness.
  • Visual changes.
  • Jerking movements of an arm, leg, or other body part.
  • Tingling or numbness in a part of the body.

Learning your triggers and warning signs can help you gain more control over your seizure activity. For more information on epilepsy and seizure management and treatment, visit the UPMC Comprehensive Epilepsy Center.

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