We exist to improve the lives
of everyone affected by epilepsy

Photosensitive epilepsy

Contents 

Introduction

The aim of this information is to tell you what photosensitive epilepsy is, who it affects and what might trigger a seizure if you have photosensitive epilepsy. There are also suggestions for reducing the risk of having a seizure.

About photosensitive epilepsy

Photosensitive epilepsy is a type of epilepsy, in which all, or almost all, seizures are triggered by flashing or flickering light. Both natural and artificial light may trigger seizures. Some patterns, like stripes or checks, can also trigger seizures for some people with photosensitive epilepsy.

Various types of seizure can be triggered by flashing or flickering light. These include tonic-clonic, absence, myoclonic and focal seizures. The most common is a tonic-clonic seizure. The seizure(s) will usually happen at the time of, or shortly after, looking at the trigger.

Around three in every 100 people with epilepsy have photosensitive epilepsy. It usually begins before the age of 20, most commonly between the ages of seven and 19. Photosensitive epilepsy affects more girls than boys.

Epilepsy Action has more information about epileptic seizures.

About hertz (Hz)

The word hertz (Hz) refers to how often something happens in a second. For example, it can mean the number of times something flashes or flickers in one second. It can also mean the number of times the scanning lines on televisions and computer monitors ‘refresh’ themselves in one second.

Most people with photosensitive epilepsy are sensitive to 16-25 Hz. Some people may be sensitive to rates as low as 3 Hz and as high as 60 Hz.

Diagnosing photosensitive epilepsy

If you have an epileptic seizure when looking at flashing or flickering lights or certain patterns, this is a sign that you may have photosensitive epilepsy.

Your doctor may ask you to have an electroencephalogram (EEG) test. This test records the electrical signals from your brain on an EEG machine. During the test, you will be asked to look at some flashing lights. If doing this changes the electrical signals in your brain, it may indicate that you have photosensitive epilepsy.

The person doing the test will usually try to stop the test before you actually have a seizure. However, there is a small risk that you will have a seizure when the test is done.

Epilepsy Action has more information about EEG tests and diagnosing epilepsy.

Ways to reduce the risk of seizures if you have photosensitive epilepsy

  • Avoid looking at anything that you know may trigger a seizure. 
  • Avoid things that can increase your risk of having a seizure. These can include feeling tired or stressed, not having enough sleep and drinking alcohol.
  • If you take epilepsy medicine, always take it as prescribed by your doctor.
  • If you look at something that might trigger a seizure, don’t close your eyes. This could increase your risk of having a seizure. Instead, immediately cover one eye with the palm of your hand and turn away from the trigger. This reduces the number of brain cells that are stimulated and reduces the risk of a seizure happening.

If you would like to see this information with references, visit the Advice and Information references section of our website or contact our Epilepsy Action freephone helpline on 0808 800 5050.

Code: 
B007.04

Epilepsy Action would like to thank Professor G F A Harding, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Neurophysiology, Aston University and also Professor Stefano Seri, Professor of Clinical Neurophysiology at Aston University and Consultant at the Birmingham Children’s Hospital NHS Foundation Trust for their contribution to this information.

This information has been produced under the terms of The Information Standard.

  • Updated March 2015
    To be reviewed March 2018

Comments: read the 13 comments or add yours

Comments

I am wondering if what I am having is some sort of epilepsy or if its something else. Im 22 year old male. I was just out for a walk by myself when all of a sudden this house had many flickering lights outside of it. Instantly i feel lightheaded, dizzy (everything becoming bright, with twitching head over my eyes (like i feel the inside of my head moving), and heart racing breathing funny. Completely uncontrollable. I got to a bus stop so i could sit down and a minute later I felt fine again. What was happening in my head felt really scary.
This is not the first time it happened, but also before with other flashing lights. I was at a lighting exhibition where there was strobe lights and it happened again. I didn't see the sign for flashing lights. And it happens when I'm driving with low sunlight and trees. I have had to pull over a few times.
I am not sure if this is some form of underlying epilepsy or a part of my anxiety (i suffer badly from also). I know I should talk to my doctor about it but maybe i can et thoughts here. Luckily it doesn't happen to me so often.

Submitted by Alan on

Hello Alan
I can hear that this was scary for you, so it is great that you are looking in to this.

Some of what you have described can be experienced by people who have photosensitive epilepsy. The only person who can say for sure whether this is what is causing this though is a specialist doctor.

As you have said, it would be worth you talking to your GP about what happened. Your GP can then ask some questions which may help work out whether it was the anxiety you have been experiencing, or whether it may be something else. They can then refer you to a specialist doctor if they feel it is necessary. You may find our information about diagnosing epilepsy helpful: epilepsy.org.uk/info/diagnosis

If we can be of any more help, please feel free to contact us again, either by email or the Epilepsy Action Helpline freephone 0808 800 5050.

Karen
Epilepsy Action Advice & Information Team

Submitted by Karen, Epilepsy... on

I want to pulse LEDs in a ray-box to get extra brightness. This is for use in a school. If I set the frequency above 60Hz, will that be safe? Should a warning be attached to the ray-box?

Submitted by Old Frank on

A warning would be a good idea as there is a small possibility the flashing may be a problem for someone.

Cherry
Epilepsy Action Advice and Information team

Submitted by Cherry, Epileps... on

Thanks, Cherry. I'll set the frequency at 66Hz and put warning stickers on them. Let's hope that avoids all problems.

Submitted by Old Frank on

Hi, I am 22 and have photosensitive epilepsy. I was wondering if there are any current studies in the UK which need research participants who have photosensitive epilepsy? (I live in Leeds) Any information would be greatly appreciated.

Submitted by Anthony on

Hello Antony

We are not aware of any current research in to photosensitive epilepsy taking place at the moment. You may find it helpful to keep an eye on our webpage for future opportunities to take part in research.

You may want to take a look at the Epilepsy Research UK website which also has information about taking part in research.

Karen

Epilepsy Action Helpline Team

 

Submitted by todd at Epileps... on

Hi everyone. My name is Mattison and my Fiancee has severe photosensitive epilepsy. I am looking for a couple of answers for things. Has anyone found out other ways to hold back a seizure of any type due to flashing? Like, do specific things help keep you out of a seizure? IE: adrenaline or something similar or entirely different.

Submitted by Mattison on

Hi Mattison

Thank you for your question. 

The main way to treat photosensitive epilepsy is still with epilepsy medicine. If epilepsy medicine doesn’t work your epilepsy specialist could look into other treatment options for you.

https://www.epilepsy.org.uk/info/treatment

ttps://www.epilepsy.org.uk/info/treatment/other-ways-treating-epilepsy

On our website we have information on some ways to reduce the risk of seizures for someone with photosensitive epilepsy

https://www.epilepsy.org.uk/info/photosensitive-epilepsy#reduce . This includes information on immediately covering one eye with the palm of your hand and turning away from the trigger. This reduces the number of brain cells that are stimulated and reduces the risk of a seizure happening. Do not just close your eyes as this could increase your risk of having a seizure.

Regards 

Diane

Epilepsy Action Helpline Team

Submitted by rich on

I have just been diagnosed with this condition, I had a lot of siezures, going black in my left eye and feeling like I was passing out. Also muscle spasms and twitching at the same time. I used to get it everyday on the M20 at the same spot on sunny days driving home at the same time. Now I know it was the sun flashing through the trees on a hill. I had a bad one last week in a museum looking at a display, also on the bus looking out of the window, the sun was at the right angle and reflected off glass widows. I had an MRI and have a trauma on my right frontal lobe. I got hit by lightning side strike in QLD Australia 16 years ago was knocked out and it's been hell ever since. The lesion is as big as a golf ball and has only just been found. It was either the current or fall what caused it. No healed fractures.

Submitted by Stephen on

I am concerned at the recent (1917) introduction of intense strobe flashing lights at the back of gravel lorries and on recovery trucks. They use bursts of strobe separated by brief pauses.
I 'm sure they are used with good intent, but have written to my MP asking for a ban.
On a personal note the lights only cause anxiety but I will use your advice to cover one eye thankyou. Richard (age 73)

Submitted by Richard Palmer on

Iam wondering if what I have is photosenstive epilepsy Iam in Africa Tanzania.
Recently I just don't understand my self and people tell me that Iam acting awkward it's just that Iam feeling dizzy and if Iam writting then Iam going to mess up the work like draw on my paper work and I always shake my legs alot have gone to hospital they just told me that Iam having epilepsy and gave me drugs which I have to take everyday Iam totally confused it's like Iam loosing my life already.Iam 56 years of age.

Submitted by Rachel msangi on

Hi Rachel

It can be tough coming to terms with having epilepsy.

But hopefully if you get on the right dose of the right epilepsy medicine your seizures will be controlled.

Most people with epilepsy have to take epilepsy medicine for the rest of their lives.

Photosensitive epilepsy is when your seizures are triggered by lights that flash at a certain frequency. Not many people have this type of epilepsy. But the feelings you describe could possibly be focal seizures.

There is a Tanzanian Epilepsy Association where you may get more information.

You may also be interested in our online community forum4e. This is for people with epilepsy and carers of people with epilepsy. It might help to talk to other people in a similar situation.

I do hope things start to feel easier for you soon.

Regards

Cherry  

Epilepsy Action Helpline Team

Submitted by rich on