Would you know how to help someone who is having an epileptic seizure?

Nicola Swanborough from the Epilepsy Society offers helpful advice on what to do if you are with someone having a seizure.

One in 100 people in the UK have epilepsy and yet a recent survey showed that almost two thirds of adults in the UK with no experience of epilepsy would not know how to support someone during or after a seizure.

And, perhaps more surprisingly, more than a quarter of people who have a family member with epilepsy, would not know how to help them if they were experiencing a seizure.

These were the worrying findings of a YouGov poll of more than 2,000 UK residents carried out on behalf of Epilepsy Society in collaboration with Young Epilepsy and the high street fashion retailer River Island.

This means, that for anyone who has a seizure in public, they have just a one in three chance of there being someone to hand who would feel able to help. Of course that does not mean that other people would not step in to assist, but they would not feel confident of what to do.

Seizure first aid

So how should you help someone who is having a seizure? The first thing to note is that there are more than 40 different seizure types and first aid will be different according to the sort of seizure a person is experiencing.

The most common seizure that you are likely to witness is a convulsive or tonic clonic seizure. This is where a person falls shaking to the ground and becomes unconscious. Epilepsy Society has put together an infographic to help people understand how they can support someone through this type of seizure.

But there are many other seizure types that may not be as instantly visible as convulsive seizures but where you may be able to help to ensure the safety of the person.

Focal seizures

These affect just part of the brain. What happens during the seizure depends on where in the brain the seizure happens.

In a simple focal seizure the person may experience an unusual smell or taste, a twitching of an arm or hand, a strange feeling such as a ‘rising’ feeling in the stomach or a sudden feeling of joy or fear. The person will be conscious and usually aware that the seizure is happening.

How can you help?

  • The person might feel strange or upset, and reassuring them might be helpful.

Complex focal seizures

The person’s consciousness is affected and they may be confused and not know what they are doing. They might wander around, behave strangely, pick up objects or make chewing movements with their mouth. Afterwards, they be confused for a while or need to sleep. These seizures can last a few seconds or a few minutes.

How can you help?

  • Do not restrain the person as this may upset or confuse them.
  • Gently guide them away from any danger for example from walking into the road.
  • Speak gently and calmly as they may be confused. If you speak loudly or grab them they might not understand and get upset or respond aggressively.

After the seizure:

  • They may feel tired and want to sleep. It might be helpful to remind them where they are.
  • Stay with them until they recover and can safely return to what they had been doing before. Some people recover quickly but others may take longer to feel back to normal again.

Secondarily generalised seizures

Sometimes a focal seizure spreads to affect both sides of the brain and then becomes generalised. Some people call these seizures ‘auras’ or ‘warnings’ as it warns them that another seizure may follow. When this happens the person will usually have a tonic clonic seizure.

How can you help?

  • If the person is aware of a warning they may need help to get to a safe place before the generalised seizure happens.

Generalised seizures

These affect both sides of the brain at once and happen without warning. The person usually becomes unconscious and will not remember the seizure afterwards.

Absences (sometimes called petit mal)

During an absence the person becomes unconscious for a short time. They may look blank and stare and will not respond to what is happening around them. If they are walking they may carry on walking, but will not be aware of what they are doing.

How can you help?

  • Stay with the person and gently guide them away from any danger.

Tonic and atonic seizures

In a tonic seizure the person’s muscles suddenly become stiff. If they are standing they often fall backwards and may injure the back of their head. In an atonic seizure (or ‘drop attack’) the person’s muscles suddenly relax and become floppy. If they are standing they often fall forwards and may injure their face or head. Both seizures are brief and happen without warning. Most people usually recover quickly.

How can you help?

  • Reassuring them may be helpful.
  • If they are injured they may need medical help.

Myoclonic seizures

Myoclonic means ‘muscle jerk’, and these seizures involve jerking of a limb or part of a limb. They often happen shortly after waking up, and are brief and can happen in clusters.

How can you help?

  • You don’t need to do anything to help during the seizure other than make sure that the person has not hurt themselves.

Click here to find out how to put someone in the recovery position. You can read more about seizure first aid for epilepsy on the Epilepsy Society website.