Some conditions or circumstances can set off a seizure for some people with epilepsy. These are called seizure triggers, and they vary based on the person. It’s important to note that these triggers don’t cause seizures, but they make it more likely for someone to have one.
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A seizure¹ is a sudden alteration of neurological function, usually caused by a large number of neurons discharging simultaneously in the brain. While epilepsy is a condition characterized by unprovoked and recurrent seizures, not all seizures are due to epilepsy.
Seizures brought on by fevers and illnesses can be one-off and don’t necessarily fall under epilepsy.
While many types of seizures have been identified, you can classify them into two large categories — partial (occurring in one part of the brain) and generalized (affecting the entire brain) seizures.
Seizures can be overwhelming for both the person experiencing one and the bystanders. Numerous symptoms often accompany them, including:
Loss of consciousness or awareness
Convulsions of the whole body
Various factors can trigger seizures. It’s important to note that no seizure is the same, and one person’s triggers may be different from someone else’s. Regardless, some factors are commonly considered possible seizure triggers:
Stress can have a highly debilitating effect on the body, even if you're not prone to getting seizures. Stress has been linked to sleep problems, anxiety, irritability, and muscle tension, and in those with epilepsy, stress can also be linked to seizures.
Research surrounding stress and seizures is still in its infancy, and because stress is subjective, this can vary depending on the person.
However, existing research² has shown that both acute and chronic stress can promote neuroinflammation and increase the risk of developing depression, increasing the likelihood of seizure occurrence. Causes of stress include arguments, accidents, and the sudden loss of a loved one.
Stress is a factor that’s hard to avoid in modern living. With proper stress management, seizures may occur less. Ways of managing stress include improving personal relationships and practicing relaxation techniques like daily exercise, meditation, and deep breathing.
Many studies³ points to the importance of sufficient sleep for our overall health. Those with sleep deficiency risk developing numerous health conditions, including high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. In people with epilepsy, a lack of sleep may also be linked with increased seizures.
Isolating sleep deprivation to determine its link to seizures is tricky, as it’s often associated with physical or emotional stress. However, studies⁴ have found a relationship between relative sleep deprivation and the occurrence of temporal lobe seizures in participants.
Healthy sleeping habits need to be built up over weeks or months before a clear routine emerges. Some healthy sleep tips include keeping your room cool, dark, and technology-free, avoiding caffeine and stimulants in the evening, and developing a personalized evening routine.
Heavy alcohol and drug use are common around the world. Excessive alcohol and drug consumption have been linked⁵ to accidents, slurred speech, hallucinations, and an increased risk of depression. In people with epilepsy, alcohol and drug use may also be linked to seizures.
Alcohol and drugs can cause the onset of seizures in various ways. Alcohol can interact with epilepsy medications to reduce the amount of the drug absorbed into the body or increase the adverse side effects. Various recreational drugs can also interact with seizure medications or directly affect the brain.
It’s best to avoid excessive consumption of drugs and alcohol to reduce your risk of developing seizures if you know you’re at risk. If you need guidance on whether alcohol will affect the type of seizure medication you’re on, inquire with your health professional.
If you’ve been diagnosed with epilepsy, you’ll most likely be on seizure medication. Missing your regular dose of medication increases your chance of having a seizure and is among the most common causes of breakthrough seizures, which refers to a recurrence of seizures after they have been controlled.
For most people, taking the wrong dose or missing medication only once won’t have any adverse effects. However, you should follow the guidelines from your healthcare provider to significantly reduce the risk of having a seizure.
Illnesses and infections can cause havoc across the whole body. But for people diagnosed with epilepsy, these conditions can also act as potential seizure triggers. A known risk factor of epilepsy in adults is CNS (central nervous system) infections, including neurocysticercosis and tumors.
Certain types of acute infections and illnesses, including lung infections and even the common cold, can cause seizures. This kind of reaction may occur due to disrupted sleep or physical stress on the body.
For people with epilepsy, certain conditions can trigger the onset of seizures. It’s important to know common potential seizure triggers to reduce the risk of developing one for you and your loved ones.
Seizures can be highly debilitating, so you should speak to a health professional. They can help you manage your seizures and prescribe medications if needed.
Overexcitement can be an emotional reaction. While emotional stress can lead to seizures due to loss of control, other strong emotions like anger or frustration have more clearly been linked to seizures.
The likelihood of your excitement becoming a trigger also depends on its intensity. You are at a much higher risk if you are over-breathing, hyperventilating, or if your excitement is paired with excessive stimuli.
The three main factors that contribute to seizure triggers are:
Physical stress (sickness, fever, tiredness, dehydration)
Use of certain medications, drugs, and alcohol
Excessive visual stimuli (flashing bright lights, patterns)
The importance of sleep (2015)
Drug and alcohol use (2022)
Relationship between sleep and seizure | Epilepsy Foundation
Can I drink alcohol when I have epilepsy? | Epilepsy Action
Drug abuse as a seizure trigger | Epilepsy Foundation
Missed medicines as a seizure trigger | Epilepsy Foundation
Strategies and tools for taking medication | Epilepsy Society
Other illnesses as a seizure trigger | Epilepsy Foundation
Stress, mood, and seizures | Epilepsy Foundation