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Are seizures always triggered by flashing lights? Myth-busting

This page is about National Epilepsy Week 2013. Find out how you can get involved in 2016.

Myth: Epileptic seizures are always triggered by flashing lights

Fact: Seizure triggers can be different for different people

Example of bright flashing lights

Seizure triggers

Some things make seizures more likely for people with epilepsy. These are often referred to as ‘triggers’. It is a common misconception that all people with epilepsy have seizures which are triggered by the same things. One particularly common myth is that flashing lights will automatically trigger a seizure in someone with epilepsy. Just as there are many types of epilepsy, there are many different triggers for seizures. Some people know what triggers their seizures and others do not and seizures can come out of the blue.

Background

Seizures can be caused by a number of different things, although they may not apply to every person who has epilepsy. It would be wrong to assume that every person’s epilepsy, seizures and seizure triggers are all the same.

There are some common triggers which some people with epilepsy will experience.

Stress

Stress is often cited as the most common cause of triggering a seizure in people with epilepsy. The parts of the brain which regulate the stress response are also involved in epilepsy. So it is easy to see how stress could play a role in triggering seizures.

Sleep deprivation

For some people with epilepsy, sleep is especially important. This is because disturbed sleep patterns, or not having enough good quality sleep, can make seizures more likely. There are also some types of epilepsy in which seizures have a particular connection to sleep.

Alcohol

Drinking more than two units of alcohol in 24 hours can increase the risk of having seizures. For most people, the risk is highest when the alcohol is leaving their body after they have had a drink. This risk is between six and 48 hours after they have stopped drinking.

Diet

Some people say that they have more seizures if they miss meals.

Flashing or flickering lights

Photosensitive epilepsy is the name given to epileptic seizures which are triggered by flashing or flickering light. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone who has epilepsy has photosensitive epilepsy. Around three in every 100 people who have epilepsy have this type, and it usually begins before the age of 20.

Missed medication

A common trigger of seizures is not taking epilepsy medicine, or missing doses.

Case study – natasha owen

Natasha Owen, 21, has epilepsy but is not photosensitive. She said: “People always assume flashing lights will cause me to have a seizure and question if I can go out or watch certain films. I don’t have photosensitive epilepsy so flashing lights don’t affect me.”

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