A seizure is a sudden change in behavior, consciousness, or sensation. Unusual electrical activity in the brain leads to seizures. They are found with conditions like high blood pressure, low blood sugar, and fever. When someone has repeated seizures that are not symptoms of another condition, we say they have a seizure disorder, or epilepsy.

There are several different kinds of seizures. Most seizures are either generalized or partial seizures. During a generalized seizure, unusual electrical activity affects the entire brain. The person becomes unaware of their surroundings. They may seem sleepy or confused when the seizure ends.

Tonic-clonic seizures

Tonic-clonic seizures are one kind of generalized seizure. They are also called grand mal or major motor seizures. This kind of seizure causes unconsciousness. The person may fall. Their body stiffens, and their arms and legs may jerk.

Absence or petit mal seizures

Absence or petit mal seizures are another kind of generalized seizure. The seizure is brief, lasting several seconds to a few minutes. The person suddenly stops what they are doing. They seem to be daydreaming or "staring into space." When you touch them or speak to them, they don't respond. During a partial seizure, unusual electrical activity affects only part of the brain. The person may remain completely or partially aware, and will remain conscious. They may have sensory hallucinations--see, hear, feel, or smell things that aren't really there. Muscle stiffness, jerking, or weakness on one side of the body may occur. Sometimes a partial seizure can develop into a generalized seizure.

Behaviors that may be telling you about seizures include:

  • Abnormal movements
  • Drop attacks--sudden weakness, falling, head suddenly drops
  • Making faces, laughing, shouting
  • Eyes suddenly roll up or move oddly, vacant stare, size of pupil may change
  • Mouth movements, lip smacking, swallowing, sucking, chewing, drooling
  • Repeating certain words, sounds
  • Arms (usually both together) suddenly jerk, may drop or throw something
  • Arm, leg weakness for a few hours after strange behavior
  • Hands twitch, fumble, pick at clothes or objects; hand wringing or patting
  • In an infant, suddenly and repeatedly bend at the waist, bend arms and legs
  • Abnormal perception
  • No response to the voice or touch of others
  • Sees, hears, feels, tastes, or smells things that no one else experiences
  • Sweats, sudden change in heart rate, flushes, gets pale

Behaviors that are rarely associated with seizures include:

  • Sleep problems, such as sleep walking, nightmares, large muscle (arm and leg movements)
  • Aggressive, destructive, or self-destructive behavior

Do you think someone's behavior may be telling you about seizures? Talk with your doctor or other health care provider. They can work with you to learn whether this is the case.