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What to Do When Someone Has a Seizure: Myths and Facts

Seeing someone have a seizure can be scary. “A lot of times, people are frightened. Their immediate action is to try to rescue them,” said Steve Chung, MD, chair of the neurology department at Banner – University Medicine Neurosciences Clinic. But you shouldn’t panic. Seizures are rarely dangerous. What’s important is to keep the person safe and comfortable and to stay with them until the seizure ends.

Dr. Chung dispelled some common myths about seizures and what to do for someone who is having one.

Myth: It’s obvious when someone is having a seizure.

Fact: Some seizures are easy to recognize. With the type of seizure called a tonic-clonic (or grand mal) seizure, a person will lose consciousness, and their body will convulse.

“The more difficult ones are more subtle,” Dr. Chang said. Seizures vary depending on where they occur in the brain and how much of the brain is involved. Someone might be staring, have trouble speaking, have tremors, make a jerking motion or feel tingling in their arm or face.

Myth: If someone is having a seizure, you should put something in their mouth because they could swallow their tongue and suffocate.

Fact: It’s unlikely someone will swallow their tongue during a seizure. And putting something in their mouth could increase their risk of choking. But they could breathe in saliva and develop aspiration pneumonia. So, it’s a good idea to help them lie down and position them on their side. That position can also help keep them from getting injured during the convulsions.

Myth: If someone is having a mild seizure, you should leave them alone.

Fact: Someone having a mild seizure could be confused. It’s best to help them remain calm and sit or lie down, so they don’t wander around and bump into something.

Myth: Seizures come on without warning.

Fact: Some seizures are unexpected. But some people who have seizures notice an aura, nausea, dizziness or a hand twitching before a seizure. If you know someone who gets seizures, you can ask them to tell you if they experience these warning signs. That way, you can help them move to a safe and comfortable place.

Myth: Only people who have epilepsy have seizures.

Fact: People with epilepsy have recurrent seizures. But seizures can occur in people who have had head trauma, brain injury, tumor, infection, degenerative changes, genetic disorders or stroke. “Stroke is the most common cause of seizures in people 65 years of age and older,” Dr. Chung said. “And that’s the age group that has the most seizures.”

Myth: You need to let a seizure run its course.

Fact: Sometimes, that’s true. But new rescue medications can actually stop seizures. Plus, seizures often occur in clusters over a day or two, and rescue medications can help prevent those future seizures. The medications are delivered as a nasal spray, so they are easy to administer. “The person doesn’t even have to breathe it in,” Dr. Chung said.

Myth: You should call 911 when someone has a seizure.

Fact: Most seizures stop within two minutes. However, you should call 911 if it’s the first time someone has had a seizure or if a seizure lasts for more than five minutes.

The bottom line

It can be scary to see someone having a seizure. What’s important is to keep them safe and comfortable until the seizure subsides. If you would like to connect with a health care provider who can help diagnose and treat seizures, reach out to Banner Health.

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