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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 your epilepsy medicine as prescribed

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

Feeling tired and not getting enough sleep

Feeling tired and not get enough sleep are two of the most common things that people with epilepsy say trigger their seizures.

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 behaviour, such as changing their sleeping or eating habits, drinking more alcohol, and feeling anxious or depressed. All of these can also increase the risk of having a seizure.

Epilepsy Action has more information about stress.

Alcohol

Several studies show that drinking small or modest amounts of alcohol does not increase the risk of having seizures. But if you have a history of alcohol abuse, even drinking small amounts could increase the number of seizures you have. This is also the case if you have had seizures related to drinking alcohol in the past.

Drinking more than modest amounts 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 highest between six and 48 hours after they have stopped drinking.

Epilepsy Action has more information about alcohol.

Flashing or flickering lights

Around three in 100 people with epilepsy have seizures which are triggered by flashing or flickering lights, or some patterns. This is called photosensitive epilepsy.

For people with 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.

Menstruation (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.

What can I do to avoid my seizure triggers?

It’s a personal choice, but you might want to consider making some lifestyle changes. 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. See Seizure triggers.

Code: 
F095.02

Epilepsy Action would like to thank Lesley McCoy, Epilepsy Nurse Specialist, County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, UK, for reviewing Epilepsy and travel abroad.

Lesley McCoy has no conflict of interest.

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

  • Updated March 2014
    To be reviewed March 2017

Comments: read the 8 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

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