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 someone has had more than one seizure, and doctors think it is likely they could have more.
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. 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. 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 the 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?
Sometimes, doctors can find a clear cause for a person’s epilepsy. Possible causes of epilepsy include:
- A brain infection, such as meningitis
- Severe head injury
- Problems during birth which caused the baby to get less oxygen
But in over half of all people with epilepsy, doctors don’t know what caused it. Some may have a family history of epilepsy, suggesting that they may have inherited it. Scientists are trying to find out more about how epilepsy might be inherited.
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 brain scans. But there isn’t a single test that can prove if someone does or does not have epilepsy.
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.
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.
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. See What is epilepsy? 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 The Information Standard.
Updated May 2016To be reviewed May 2019