A surge of electrical activity in the brain can happen to anyone under the right circumstances.
Harrison Ford has played a hero in the movies, but in real life, he gives that distinction to his 26-year-old daughter, Georgia. Earlier this month, the actor revealed that Georgia has epilepsy, and that it took years for her to get the proper treatment. “I admire her perseverance, her talent, her strength,” he told the Daily News.
Epilepsy isn’t always easy to identify. The disorder typically isn’t diagnosed until a person has had two or more “unprovoked” seizures—that is, seizures that don’t have a clear trigger, explains Vikram Rao, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco.
It turns out there are multiple things that can trigger a seizure, which is essentially a surge of electrical activity in the brain. And just because you have one, that doesn’t mean you’ve got epilepsy. But you should always get checked out by a doctor afterwards, says Dr. Rao.
Here, six things that are known to trigger seizures even in people who don’t have a neurological condition—and what to do when a seizure strikes.
Seizures triggered by stress look similar to epileptic seizures, mainly because they can have the same symptoms—numbness, confusion, convulsions, and more. But there are differences in the brain electrical activity between the two types. In fact, research suggests that somewhere between 5% and 20% of people with epilepsy may be misdiagnosed and, in fact, suffering from seizures provoked by anxiety or underlying trauma.
Low blood sugar
Your brain is a huge consumer of glucose, says Dr. Rao. When your blood sugar levels drop too low—a state called hypoglycemia—your brain has trouble functioning normally and the result could be a seizure. Since hypoglycemia is a potential a side effect of diabetes medications, diabetics may be at a higher risk for this type of seizure.
You already know that playing soccer for hours on a scorching-hot day can be dangerous. In that kind of heat (and under that kind of exertion), people can have trouble cooling themselves down. Once your internal thermostat reaches about 104 degrees Fahrenheit, you risk damaging your organs, including your brain: “The brain doesn’t function as well at higher temperatures,” says Dr. Rao. Once heat illness sets in, the brain can misfire, possibly triggering a seizure.
An estimated 2 million people may experience alcohol withdrawal every year, according to a 2004 study in the journal American Family Physician. People can develop a tolerance to (or dependence on) alcohol, and the wiring in their brains can reflect that. So when some people quit cold turkey, it leaves their brains in a new, altered state that can set them up for a seizure, usually within 48 hours after their last drink, says Dr. Rao.
Antidepressants like bupropion (a.k.a. Wellbutrin and Zyban) have been associated with seizures in certain studies. And some antibiotics, like penicillins and quinolones, and pain medications like tramadol (sold under the brand name Ultram) might increase the risk of seizures too.
Too-little sleep is a powerful trigger for seizures, says Dr. Rao. (He’s seen seizures in college students who’ve stayed up for days in a row cramming for an exam.) “No one knows the exact reason behind this,” says Dr. Rao, “but sleep is restorative. We spend one-third of our lives sleeping, so we know it’s important.”
What to do if someone has a seizure
Oftentimes, less is more. Rule number one: Keep the person safe. That means making sure she doesn’t accidentally hurt herself, either on a nearby sharp object or by falling down the stairs.
As Anto Bagić, MD, PhD, the chief of the epilepsy division at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center puts it: “There’s no ‘heroic’ measure necessary.” Don’t try to restrain the person (she might panic and lash out even more aggressively) and do not put anything in her mouth (she might choke on it). Besides, it’s a myth that people can swallow their tongue during a seizure.
Either give her some space or, if necessary, guide her to a safer area, Dr. Bagić explains. If she’s lying on the floor, gently turn her on her side so that her saliva doesn’t block her airway.
Most seizures resolve themselves within five minutes, so if it goes on for longer than that, you should call 911, says Dr. Bagić. More often, however, the person will regain consciousness after a few minutes—and when she does, stay calm.
“When people are coming back [from a seizure], that’s when they’re at their most vulnerable,” says Dr. Bagić. “It can be scary if the first thing they see is people staring at them or panicking.”
Another key point: Stay with the person until you’re sure that she’s completely recovered. Do all that, and it’ll be heroic enough.