What triggers an epileptic seizure?

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Some people are able to identify things or situations that can trigger seizures.

A few of the most commonly reported triggers are:

  • lack of sleep
  • illness or fever
  • stress
  • bright lights, flashing lights, or patterns
  • caffeine, alcohol, medicines, or drugs
  • skipping meals, overeating, or specific food ingredients

Identifying triggers isn’t always easy. A single incident doesn’t always mean something is a trigger. It’s often a combination of factors that trigger a seizure.

A good way to find your triggers is to keep a seizure journal. After each seizure, note the following:

  • day and time
  • what activity you were involved in
  • what was happening around you
  • unusual sights, smells, or sounds
  • unusual stressors
  • what you were eating or how long it had been since you’d eaten
  • your level of fatigue and how well you slept the night before

You can also use your seizure journal to determine if your medications are working. Note how you felt just before and just after your seizure, and any side effects.

Bring the journal with you when you visit the doctor. It may be useful in adjusting your medications or exploring other treatments.

Learn more about living with epilepsy »

Is epilepsy hereditary?

There may be as many as 500 genes that relate to epilepsy. Genetics may also provide you with a natural “seizure threshold.” If you inherit a low seizure threshold, you’re more vulnerable to seizure triggers. A higher threshold means you’re less likely to have seizures.

Epilepsy sometimes runs in families. Still, the risk of inheriting the condition is fairly low. Most parents with epilepsy don’t have children with epilepsy.

In general, the risk of developing epilepsy by age 20 is about 1 percent, or 1 in every 100 people. If you have a parent with epilepsy due to a genetic cause, your risk rises to somewhere between 2 to 5 percent.

If your parent has epilepsy due to another cause, such as stroke or brain injury, it doesn’t affect your chances of developing epilepsy.

Certain rare conditions, such as tuberous sclerosis and neurofibromatosis, can cause seizures. These are conditions that can run in families.

Epilepsy doesn’t affect your ability to have children. But some epilepsy medications can affect your unborn baby. Don’t stop taking your medications, but do talk to your doctor before becoming pregnant or as soon as you learn you are pregnant.

If you have epilepsy and are concerned about starting a family, consider arranging a consultation with a genetic counselor.

What causes epilepsy?

For 6 out of 10 people with epilepsy, the cause can’t be determined. A variety of things can lead to seizures.

Possible causes include:

  • traumatic brain injury
  • scarring on the brain after a brain injury (post-traumatic epilepsy)
  • serious illness or very high fever
  • stroke, which is a leading cause of epilepsy in people over age 35
  • other vascular diseases
  • lack of oxygen to the brain
  • brain tumor or cyst
  • dementia or Alzheimer’s disease
  • maternal drug use, prenatal injury, brain malformation, or lack of oxygen at birth
  • infectious diseases such as AIDS and meningitis
  • genetic or developmental disorders or neurological diseases

Heredity plays a role in some types of epilepsy. In the general population, there’s a 1 percent chance of developing epilepsy before 20 years of age. If you have a parent whose epilepsy is linked to genetics, that increases your risk to 2 to 5 percent.

Genetics may also make some people more susceptible to seizures from environmental triggers.

Epilepsy can develop at any age. Diagnosis usually occurs in early childhood or after age 60.

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