I have had epilepsy since the age of five, but I never realized how scary seizures can look until I saw a YouTube video of someone having a tonic-clonic (formerly known as grand mal) seizure.
For someone who is unfamiliar with epilepsy, witnessing a seizure could be frightening enough to make it difficult to offer help. The best thing to do is to stay calm. I have learned from experience that the more you teach people about epilepsy, the less they fear it and the calmer they are in the face of a seizure.
My three kids had a hard time understanding my epilepsy when they were young. The few times they saw me have a seizure were terrifying for them. One day I sat down and told them a story, through pictures, about what epilepsy is and what to do if someone has a seizure. It really helped. I also gave them plenty of reassurance that a seizure only lasts a short time and then everything will be back to normal.
My neurologist, Orrin Devinsky, M.D., believes that first aid for seizures is essential for family members and others to know. “One important, under-recognized problem by both doctors and patients is ‘sudden unexpected death in epilepsy,’” Dr. Devinsky says. “This is the most common cause of death among people with epilepsy and is almost always caused by a seizure. In many cases the seizure occurs in sleep and the person ends up face down. Many experts believe that at least some cases can be prevented by rolling the person over on her side, though this is unproven. Alarms to detect seizures are now available, but their reliability remains uncertain. For now, use of sound alarms or movement detectors should be considered for those individuals at risk for night-time tonic-clonic seizures who sleep alone but with other people in the house. See epilepsy.com/epilepsy/devices_links .”
Dr. Devinsky and I created this list of tips regarding what to do if someone near you is having a seizure:
1. Stay calm.
2. Call 911 if the person is having her first seizure or is pregnant.
3. Try to time the seizure. Seizures usually do not last longer than 60 to 120 seconds. If the seizure lasts longer than 3 minutes, call 911.
4. If the person is standing, prevent her from falling by holding her in a hug, or try to help her gently to the floor.
5. Move away furniture or other objects that might injure the person during the seizure.
6. If the person having a seizure is on the ground when you arrive, try to position her on her side so that any saliva or vomit can leak out of her mouth rather than be swallowed or go down the windpipe.
7. Do not put anything, including your fingers, into the person's mouth while she is seizing. You could chip the person's tooth, or your finger could be bitten.
8. Do not try to hold the person down because this can cause injury, such as a dislocated shoulder.
After the seizure:
1. Check the person for injuries.
2. If you could not turn the person onto her side during the seizure, do so when the seizure has ended and the person is calm.
3. If the person is having trouble breathing, use your finger to gently clear her mouth of any saliva or vomit. If this does not work, call for emergency help.
4. Loosen tight clothing around the person's neck and waist.
5. Provide a safe area where the person can rest.
6. Do not give the person anything to eat or drink until she is fully conscious and aware of her surroundings.
7. Stay with the person until she is awake and any confusion wears off. Most people feel sleepy or confused after a seizure.