Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 1998;57(7):1603-1604

See related article on epilepsy.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a name for a condition that causes brief disturbances in the normal electric function of the brain. These disturbances are called seizures. Another name for epilepsy is “seizure disorder.” In someone who has epilepsy, the normal activity in the brain is interrupted by bursts of activity that are more intense than usual. These bursts may cause symptoms that no one else is aware of, like a strange feeling in the body or a certain taste, smell or sight. At other times, the symptoms may be visible, like loss of consciousness (“blacking out”) or body movements that can't be controlled (“convulsions”). When the activity in the brain causes any of these symptoms, the person is said to be having a seizure.

What is the difference between epilepsy and seizures?

Seizures are the events caused by the short disruption of the brain's normal activity. They are a sign of epilepsy. Epilepsy is the underlying tendency of the brain to produce seizures. Sometimes a person will have a seizure if the brain gets irritated—such as from a fever or a medicine side effect. This kind of seizure doesn't necessarily mean the person has epilepsy. A person has epilepsy when the brain's activity is disrupted and seizures happen over and over again.

Are seizures dangerous?

Some seizures, especially those that cause a person to lose consciousness or to fall down, can cause injuries. Although life-threatening complications from a seizure are rare, people who have repeated seizures are at risk for serious complications. So it's best for people with epilepsy to have treatment to prevent seizures from happening.

What causes epilepsy?

Epilepsy can have many causes. These include serious head injuries, the after-effects of an infection, problems in the way the brain developed before birth, and genetic (inherited) conditions. Many people with epilepsy haven't had a brain injury. Often, no cause for epilepsy can be found.

If I have epilepsy, will my children have it, too?

Some kinds of epilepsy run in families, but many kinds don't. Most children whose parents have epilepsy don't get it themselves. Your doctor can tell you what kind of epilepsy you have and if it might run in your family.

How does the doctor know I have epilepsy?

Your doctor will ask questions that will help him or her tell if you have epilepsy. Tests like the electroencephalogram (EEG) and brain scans may also give helpful information. The EEG is a test that records the electric activity of the brain. The brain waves that happen during or even between seizures may show certain patterns that help your doctor decide if you have epilepsy. Brain scans, like computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), provide a picture of your brain. The scans may show a scar, a growth or another condition that could be causing epilepsy.

How is epilepsy treated?

Many medicines may be used in patients with epilepsy to stop seizures from occurring and to reduce the frequency or severity of seizures. In many patients with epilepsy, medicine completely controls seizures—that is, the person doesn't have any seizures while taking the medicine. In other patients, seizures are harder to control. Several medicines may need to be tried before the best one is found. Some patients have side effects from one medicine and have to try another one. In some patients, the seizures aren't completely stopped by medicine. These patients may be referred to doctors who are epilepsy specialists. They can often offer other treatments for epilepsy, including surgery.

How can I help control my seizures?

Work closely with your doctor. Take your medicine as instructed. Help your doctor to know if the medicine is working for you by keeping track of any seizures or side effects in a diary or on a calendar. Try to have a regular sleep schedule. Changes in your sleep pattern might make seizures more likely. Avoid drinking alcohol, especially if it tends to provoke your seizures.

Where can I find out more about epilepsy?

A great place for information on epilepsy is the Epilepsy Foundation of America. They can send you a catalog of publications about epilepsy and offer other assistance. You can telephone toll-free by calling 1-800-EFA-1000. An Internet Web site on epilepsy is available at

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