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Some common seizure triggers

Some things make seizures more likely for some people with epilepsy. These are often called ‘triggers’. Triggers do not cause epilepsy itself, but they are things that make it more likely that you will have a seizure.

Not all people with epilepsy have seizure triggers. And the things that trigger one person’s seizures might not affect other people with epilepsy in the same way.

Here are some of the seizure triggers that are commonly reported by people with epilepsy:  

  • Not taking epilepsy medicine as prescribed
  • Feeling tired
  • Not sleeping well
  • Stress
  • Alcohol and recreational drugs
  • Flashing or flickering lights
  • Monthly periods
  • Missing meals
  • Having an illness which causes a high temperature

Not taking epilepsy medicine as prescribed

Taking epilepsy medicines regularly, as prescribed by the doctor, will help to keep a steady level of the medicine in your blood. Several studies have shown that missing a dose of your epilepsy medicine increases the risk of you having a seizure.

Feeling tired and not sleeping well

Many people with epilepsy say that feeling tired or not sleeping well can trigger seizures.

Epilepsy Action has more information about sleep.

Stress

It’s not known exactly why stress might trigger seizures. But many people with epilepsy say that if they are feeling stressed, they are more likely to have a seizure. For some people, feeling stressed can lead to other things, such as changing sleeping or eating habits, drinking more alcohol, and feeling anxious or depressed. All of these can also increase your risk of having a seizure.  

Epilepsy Action has more information about stress.

Alcohol and recreational drugs

Some people with epilepsy drink alcohol and some people don’t. It’s up to you to decide if you’re going to drink alcohol. But bear in mind that for some people, alcohol can make seizures more likely.

Drinking more than modest amounts of alcohol in 24 hours can increase the risk of having seizures. After heavy drinking, the risk is highest when the alcohol is leaving your body. This risk is highest between 6 and 48 hours after you’ve stopped drinking.

Epilepsy Action has more information about alcohol.

Recreational drugs include illegal drugs and ‘legal highs’. There is no control over what goes into these drugs. They can be dangerous and they can trigger seizures.

Flashing or flickering lights

Around 3 in 100 people with epilepsy have seizures that are triggered by flashing or flickering lights, or some patterns. This is called photosensitive epilepsy. If you have photosensitive epilepsy, both natural and artificial light may trigger seizures. Some patterns, like stripes or checks, can also trigger seizures for some people with photosensitive epilepsy. The seizure(s) will usually happen at the time of, or shortly after, looking at the trigger.

Epilepsy Action has more information about photosensitive epilepsy.

Monthly periods

Some women with epilepsy find that they are more likely to have seizures at certain times of their menstrual cycle (periods).

Epilepsy Action has more information about seizures and the menstrual cycle.

Missing meals

Some people with epilepsy say that if they skip meals, they are more likely to have a seizure.

Having an illness which causes a high temperature

Some people say that they are more likely to have seizures when they have an illness, such as an infection that causes a high temperature.

What can I do to avoid my seizure triggers? 

There are some things you can do to avoid your seizure triggers. These include:

  • Remembering to always take your epilepsy medicine
  • Having a good sleep routine  
  • Trying to reduce your stress
  • Limiting how much alcohol you drink  
  • Avoiding flashing or flickering lights (if you have photosensitive epilepsy)
  • Talking to your doctor if your seizures follow a pattern connected to your menstrual cycle
  • Eating regular meals

 Epilepsy Action’s booklet and web pages about epilepsy and wellbeing have more detailed information about lifestyle changes which could reduce your risk of seizures.

How can I recognise my triggers?

Keeping a seizure diary is a good way to try and find out what might trigger your seizures. Every time you have a seizure, record it and make a note of what you were doing and how you were feeling. If you do this over time, you might see a pattern emerging.

Epilepsy Action has more information about keeping a seizure diary.

If you would like to see this information with references, visit the Advice and Information references section of our website. If you are unable to access the internet, please contact our Epilepsy Action Helpline freephone on 0808 800 5050.

Code: 
F095.03

Epilepsy Action would like to thank Wendy Burton, Epilepsy Nurse Specialist, Ipswich Hospital NHS Trust UK, for reviewing some possible seizure triggers .

Wendy Burton has no conflict of interest.

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

  • Updated March 2017
    To be reviewed March 2020

Comments: read the 13 comments or add yours

Comments

I am female aged 68 I will be 69 in December and this year I started to experience what I now know to be classed as "Absences'" I was referred by my GP to the TIA clinic she thought they were mini strokes I thought I had dementia and was told there it was epilepsy I was given medication but I continued to have absences and on Thursday I had my first full epileptic seizure gratefully my husband was with me and he rang for an ambulance. Since then I have had bouts of feeling sick and have to go and open my bowels urgently( not diarrhoea.) I have been lucky enough to have a hospital apt this morning with the stroke doctor who has refereed me to the Epilepsy team and has also increased my medication. What I need to know is the sickness and overwhelming tiredness and the age I have started having attacks a normal part of epilepsy.

Submitted by Gloria Bullen on

Hi Gloria

It must have been a shock getting diagnosed with epilepsy. But epilepsy can start at any age. There are many types of epilepsy. Some types start when you are very young, and some in later life.

Hopefully when you see the epilepsy team they will confirm the type of epilepsy you have. It’s possible you don’t have absence seizures but focal seizures. Absence seizures usually start in childhood between the ages of four to nine years of age. Whilst focal seizures can start at any age.

Sometimes when a person has a focal seizure it is possible for the seizure to progress into a full seizure (tonic-clonic seizure).

The sickness and needing to open your bowels could possibly be a coincidence, but epilepsy is individual. May be you could keep a diary of all your symptoms to show the epilepsy team.

When you first start on epilepsy medicine you may get side-effects. Once your body has had a few days or weeks to get used to taking it, they should lessen or disappear completely. If they don’t disappear or get worse, talk to your family doctor or epilepsy team. They might make changes to your epilepsy medicine to lessen the side-effects.

Whilst waiting for your appointment, you may find it helpful to look at our information on Preparing for your appointment

Hope this has answered your questions. 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.

Regards

Diane Wallace
Epilepsy Action Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Diane, Epilepsy... on

Is it normal for triggers to be extremely specific sensory or psychological circumstances? I've just been diagnosed with TLE, I've had simple and partial seizures for about 12 years. the first one I remember very clearly, I had just crossed a busy road and I remember staring back into the traffic for a couple of minutes feeling kind of drained and confused. Since then I've had seizures very sporadically, multiple times a day for maybe a week but then I'm often seizure free for up to 6 months afterwards. The one consistent thing I've noticed is that 80% of my seizures seem to occur when I am either looking at a road or thinking about roads/crossing roads. Do people ever report specific triggers/correlations like this? I get very paranoid and irrational for a few minutes following these seizures, it would be a great comfort to me if I knew this bizarre correlation was something medically explainable.

Submitted by Lula on

Hello Lula
Thanks for your message. Although it’s rare, some people with epilepsy do have seizures that are triggered by very specific things. This is called reflex epilepsy. We’ve not heard of anyone having seizures that are triggered by looking at or thinking about roads before. But researchers have reported cases of people who have seizures triggered by doing or thinking about specific things. For example in 2006 the scientific journal Epilepsia published an article about someone whose seizures were triggered both by brushing their teeth and by seeing or thinking about a toothbrush or toothpaste.

It's not unusual to feel confused and frightened during and after a partial seizure, so you are not alone in feeling like this. Coming to terms with a new diagnosis of epilepsy can also be tough. You might find it helps to talk to other people with epilepsy either on our online forum, forum4e, or at one of our coffee and chat groups.

I hope this helps. If you have any further questions please feel free to get in touch.

Grace
Epilepsy Action Advice and Information Team

Submitted by 37204 on

hi I have hydrocephalus (water on the brain) I have had 34 ops on my head and have 3 shunts,i have really bad grand mal seizures when my shunts do stop working but have also been recently diagnosed with epilepsy,not too sure the exact type,buti had an absent seizure a yr last jusy where my mum found mum clinging on to the sofa and out of it mentally plus conscious too.can this be linked to a shunt malfunction regarding my hydrocephalus?

Submitted by miss deborah davies on

Hi Deborah
We’re not medically trained so aren’t able to answer this question for you. But the Brain and Spine Foundation have a freephone number where you can ring and talk to a nurse. I think they should be able to help you. The phone number is 0808 808 1000.

Cherry
Epilepsy Action Advice and Information team

Submitted by Cherry, Epileps... on

It is suggested that keeping a seizure diary is a good idea, I have seizures but I have no recollection of them, before during or after. How then is it possible to keep a diary.

Submitted by Gabriel on

Hello Gabriel
Keeping a seizure diary can be a good way for a person to see if there may be things which make a seizure more likely. I can appreciate that this is very difficult though if you are not aware that you have had a seizure. Some people tell us that they are only able to keep a log of seizures if they are told they have had one by other people, or if they notice a headache, or some other symptom that they normally have after a seizure

Karen
Epilepsy Action Advice & Information Team

Submitted by Karen, Epilepsy... on

I have had epilepsy for 10 years had 2 big ones but lately getting lot more small ones should I be worried lost 2 stone and very depressed I am on 800 mg tegtrol a day does it need changing can your body get used to your medication

Submitted by Melanie bates on

Hello Melanie

This sounds like a difficult situation to find yourself in.

Some people do tell us that a change in their body weight has had an effect on the way their epilepsy medicines work. It is also recognised that sometimes a person’s epilepsy medicines may stop working as well as they used to. It would be a good idea to talk to your epilepsy nurse or epilepsy doctor about this to check that your treatment is still the best for you.

Living with depression can be tough. I wonder whether you have had chance to talk to your GP about this, and to ask if there is any way they can support you. We also have some information about depression and stress on our website which includes some resources which you may also find helpful.

If you would like to talk about this, or if we can be of any more help, please feel free to get in touch

Karen
Epilepsy Action Advice & Information Team

Submitted by Karen@Epilepsy ... on

I always have a partial complex seizure when I get scared by loud unexpected noises. I manage a restaurant and when I walk through the kitchen and something falls I will have one. When someone surprises me from behind I will have one. Is this a common trigger for most epileptic patients?

Submitted by Daniel Carter on

Hello Daniel

Although this is not a common seizure trigger, some people do report a seizure being triggered by sudden loud noises or being touched or tapped. Rare triggers like these are called reflex epilepsies.

You may find it helpful to talk to your neurologist about this, so that they can check that you are still getting the best treatment for you. This may help you to get better seizure control.

Karen

Epilepsy Action Helpline Team

 

Submitted by Karen-Epilepsy ... on

Hi,

Thank you for this website. The contents are excellent. I have recently been diagnosed with epilepsy, and have found the material on this site informative, and reassuring.

Keep up the good work.

Sean

Submitted by Sean Foley on