Epilepsy is most often associated with seizures, which is a common misconception, as every second patient only experiences an altered state of consciousness.
Many people are also convinced that during a seizure people can be dangerous to their environment. This is another myth. During a seizure epileptics can only hurt themselves since they are vulnerable to injury. Another false belief is that during an epileptic seizure it is necessary to promptly put something in the epileptic's mouth. This is by no means necessary.
Epileptics can get injured during the so-called generalised seizures. They involve loss of consciousness followed by muscle contraction and shaking of the whole body. The person experiences difficulty breathing and might even stop breathing for a moment. These might be accompanied by involuntary urinary incontinence and tongue-biting.
During such a traumatising episode it is vital to provide help. However, there is no point in putting anything in the epileptic's mouth.
Professor Joanna Jędrzejczak, President of the Polish Society of Epileptology (PTE) explains that, above all, it is necessary to protect the head by putting something soft underneath it. If possible, you can also remove any close objects the person could hit. The seizing person should also have their clothing loosened to facilitate breathing and should be put on their side to prevent choking with their spit.
Such episodes usually last no longer than one or two minutes. Then the person would sleep, generally from several minutes to half an hour. It is advised to provide the person with a peaceful environment, even if the seizure took place in the street. If it is cold, he/she should be covered with something to prevent excessive cooling.
However, generalised seizures, often described in literature, are infrequent. Persons who experience them sometimes feel the seizure onset in the form of the so-called aura. It usually lasts from several to several dozen seconds. The person would then feel a strange smell or taste, their mood would change or they might experience slight trembling or tingling in their hands or fingers. In some cases they might be hearing non-existent sounds.
Another thing are the signs of the seizure, often mistaken for the aura. These are found in 30-50% of epileptics and appear much earlier - several hours or even days before the episode proper. They include significant mood swings, anxiety and tearfulness, as well as difficulties with concentrating, general exhaustion, headaches, gastrointestinal complaints and difficulties with falling asleep. Sometimes people have a tendency to become aggressive before the seizure.
Minor but dangerous symptoms
Seizure symptoms are usually inconspicuous and even the person concerned and people from their closest environment remain unaware of them. These can, for instance, include temporary stillness and a vacant face expression, which tend to be mistaken in children for a mere absent-mindedness. You should pay attention to such symptoms and consult your GP when in doubt.
However, such inconspicuous seizures should not be disregarded as innocuous. They should be treated just as the forms manifesting themselves in more serious ways. If untreated, these might exacerbate the condition and lead to generalised seizures.
Outside the seizures epileptics can lead normal lives, work and perform everyday activities.