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What is epilepsy?

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a condition that affects the brain. When someone has epilepsy, it means they have a tendency to have epileptic seizures.

Anyone can have a one-off seizure, but this doesn’t always mean they have epilepsy. Epilepsy is usually only diagnosed if a doctor thinks there’s a high chance that the person could have more seizures.

Epilepsy can start at any age and there are many different types. Some types of epilepsy last for a limited time and the person eventually stops having seizures. But for many people epilepsy is a life-long condition.

What are epileptic seizures?

Electrical activity is happening in our brain all the time, as the cells in the brain send messages to each other. A seizure happens when there is a sudden burst of intense electrical activity in the brain. This causes a temporary disruption to the way the brain normally works, so the brain’s messages become mixed up. The result is an epileptic seizure.

There are many different types of seizure. What happens to someone during a seizure depends on which part of their brain is affected, and how far the seizure activity spreads. During some types of seizure the person may remain alert and aware of what’s going on around them, and with other types they may lose awareness. They may have unusual sensations, feelings or movements. Or they may go stiff, fall to the floor and jerk.

Read more about different types of epileptic seizures or take our quick e-learning module to see what different types of seizures look like and learn what to do when someone has one.

How common is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is one of the most common serious neurological conditions in the world. It affects around 600,000 people in the UK. This means that almost 1 in 100 people in the UK have epilepsy. Around 87 people are diagnosed with epilepsy in the UK every day.

What causes epilepsy?

Possible causes of epilepsy include:

  • Brain damage, for example damage caused by a stroke, head injury or infection
  • Brain tumours
  • Problems with the way the brain developed in the womb
  • Genetic factors

But in over half of all people with epilepsy, doctors can’t find a cause. It’s thought that our genes play a part in who does and who doesn’t develop epilepsy. This may explain why some people develop epilepsy with no clear cause. Researchers have found a number of genes linked to particular types of epilepsy.  There are many types that doctors suspect are genetic, but they don’t yet know which genes are involved.

Find out more about epilepsy and inheritance.

How is epilepsy diagnosed?

The main way doctors diagnose epilepsy is by taking a detailed description of the seizures. They may also arrange for some tests to help give them more information about the possible type and cause of the epilepsy. This can also help rule out any other conditions that could be causing seizures. These tests can include blood tests, an EEG (recording of the brainwaves) and a brain scan. But there isn’t a single test that can prove if someone does or does not have epilepsy.  

Find out more about how epilepsy is diagnosed and the tests involved.

How is epilepsy treated?

The main treatment for epilepsy is epilepsy medicines. These are sometimes called anti-epileptic drugs or AEDs. The medicine doesn’t cure epilepsy, but helps to stop or reduce the number of seizures.

Many people find that their seizures stop with the first or second medicine they try. But some people need to try a few medicines before they find one that works well for them. And some people need to take 2 or more epilepsy medicines together.

If epilepsy medicine doesn’t work well for someone, their doctor might suggest other types of treatment. Other types of treatment include brain surgery, another type of surgery called vagus nerve stimulation, and a special diet called the ketogenic diet which is sometimes used for children.

Find out more about epilepsy treatment.

How can I help someone having a seizure?

Visit our first aid for seizures webpage.

Take our quick e-learning module to find out what to do when someone has a seizure.

What is living with epilepsy like?

Epilepsy affects everyone in different ways. Watch our videos of people sharing their experiences of living with epilepsy.

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 freephone Helpline on 0808 800 5050.


This information has been produced under the terms of Epilepsy Action's information quality standards.

  • Updated May 2019
    To be reviewed May 2022

Comments: read the 8 comments or add yours


I unfortunately lost my mum last month due to her epilepsy. She had got epilepsy when she was 16 but died at such a young age of 39. I was a young carer for her and we got lots of support, however I know what living with someone with epilepsy is like and how serious it actually is. I was just wondering if I could have some help raising awareness as when I explained the death of my mother to friends, they didn't know what it was,
Kind regards.

Submitted by Jasmine Talbot on

I thought i would update everyone that i have temporal lobe epilepsy which is some small damage to the left area of my brain which i could have been born with. I first had my seizures when i was 21 whilst at work on the phone at my desk which is when i spaced out but another colleague rushed over and took my phone to continue the conversation for me. I came around not knowing what had just happened so i saw the doctors, had the brain scans finding out that i had epilepsy. Im 32 now and I've tried many different types of medication which unfortunately hasn't controlled my seizures which has got worse since i was 21. I have them now more regular which is once a week and tends to be in the evenings. Im not longer in employment as three companies have turned against me because of my epilepsy but now due to health and safety I'm not longer working as I've had seizures on trains and walking down the street which is a danger whilst on my own and theres risk of one day getting hit by a car whilst having a seizure attempting to cross the road. When I've had a seizure watching the TV the characters start talking about epilepsy which is a clue to me that I'm about to have one. Ive been told i go white as a ghost and i clap my lips together and i don't know what time of day it is? I tend to go to bed and take my clothes off even though its 3.00pm in the afternoon. When i come back around from the seizure which takes about 1 or 2 min's i feel really tired and realise that I've had a seizure but still cant remember whats happened as it really badly affects my memory. My epilepsy is only mild so i don't crash to the floor and shake. I will now be soon trying some more new tablets to see if it makes any difference and if not then a brain operation is the next opinion to take to try and get this controlled. Ive been lucky having the support of my parents who i still currently live with paying them rent. Hopefully this will get controlled soon. I am currently getting the ESA Support Group Benefits but been refused many many times by the PIP Benefit saying theres nothing wrong with me…. its now with a Courts Tribunal and i am awaiting contact to get a decision made.

Submitted by Daniel on

I have a 5yr old son who has had 2 prolonged seizures, the 1st when he was only 19 months old & the 2nd in February last year it lasted over an hr & 40 minutes. He ended up on ventilator that time. He's had little one's since then lasting from a few seconds to a min & as yet they still haven't diagnosed him. The last 2wks have been awful, he's having upto 4 a day some days & only 1 day with none. I'm calling the epilepsy nurse every other day, I've had him in children A&E twice these last 2wks & still feel like I'm getting nowhere, it's so frustrating and frightening, I don't know what else to do. I've badgered Alderhey this week & got them to fit him in for sleep deprived EEG tomorrow 27/04/18 but the mri isn't being done until 24th May at Arrow Park Hospital, I'm at my wits end & my 9yr old is a wreck waiting for the next one to happen, he's terrified for his little brother. The school have been great as its happened in school a few times this last 2wks as well & they're concerned not enough is being done either. I wish someone would just help me xxx

Submitted by Lisa Murray on

Hi Lisa, 

Thank you for your message. It sounds like you have been having a really difficult time. And it can be so hard waiting for an official diagnosis. Here is some information about diagnosing epilepsy and some information about epilepsy in children

The long seizures must have been distressing to watch. You might find the information I have linked you to useful. It’s great that your son hasn’t had one of these for some time.

I am guessing the little seizures you mention may be absences. So here is some information about those too. Although I am sure they are also a concern, they are not dangerous in the same way the long seizures can be.

It sounds like you are doing your very best to get all the information and appointments sorted for your son. Hopefully the EEG result will offer more information to help towards a diagnosis.

We do have some resources that might be helpful for your older son. We have a website for children. And we have some information specifically for siblings. I really hope that help to reassure him a bit.

Here is the range of support we offer. Many people find it useful to talk to someone in a similar situation to themselves. So do check out the coffee and chat groups and our online community forum4e.

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



Epilepsy Action Helpline Team

Submitted by rich on

I have had epilepsy for many years ,I have now started to get more seizure that last about 9 mins at a time . Could my epilepsy change due to surgery of the temple Lobe. And scar tissue grows .

Submitted by Susan trelfer on

I have a fourteen year old Grandaughter who has developed epilepsy, I am into essential oils (doTerra). Will I be able to let her use them. She is on medication tablets, on this seems to have got it under control. It is the emotional side I am trying to help, she also is a teenager, which brings its own problems!

Submitted by June Pickford on

Hi June – it is good to hear your grand-daughter’s epilepsy medicines are giving her good seizure control. But as you mentioned there can still be a lot to come to terms with. There are some essential oils that could be a problem for someone with epilepsy. This is a link to our information about complementary therapies that explains more about this. We have some information for young people that may be helpful as well.



Epilepsy Action Helpline Team


Submitted by rich on

You have had a letter from me (not an email) at 80yrs I'm having difficulty getting used to methods used .The letter I sent still applies .Use it if it is of any help.

Submitted by Margaret Manton on

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