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Understanding Seizures -- Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on April 26, 2021

What Are the Symptoms of Seizures?

Symptoms of seizures vary widely, depending on the part of the brain affected by the electrical misfiring. If a very small part of the brain is affected, you might sense only an odd smell or taste. In other cases, you could have hallucinations or convulsions, or you could lose consciousness.

  • Absence (Petit mal). This involves loss of consciousness and blank stares or eyelid fluttering for 10 to 30 seconds. You feel well enough to resume activity right after the seizure.
  • Tonic-clonic (grand mal). This type of seizure is sometimes preceded by an aura (awareness of a strange odor, taste, or vision). You might lose consciousness, fall, and experience muscle rigidity (stiffness) or convulsions (jerking movements of the arms and legs). You may also lose bladder control or bite your tongue. After regaining consciousness, you might feel confused and fall asleep. They usually last 1-3 minutes. If they last longer, someone should call 911.
  • Clonic seizures:. Your muscles have spasms, which often make your face, neck, and arm muscles jerk rhythmically. They may last several minutes.
  • Simple focal. Muscle twitching begins in a single area. Although you don’t lose consciousness, you have involuntary movements, sensations, or psychic experiences such as awareness of a smell or a sense of déjà vu lasting several seconds.
  • Jacksonian. Muscle twitching begins in a single area and then progresses, for example, from the hand to the arm.
  • Generalized absence. This involves loss of consciousness and blank stares or eyelid fluttering for 10 to 30 seconds. You feel well enough to resume activity right after the seizure.
  • Simple partial. Although you don’t lose consciousness, you have involuntary movements, sensations, or psychic experiences such as awareness of a smell or a sense of déjà vu lasting several seconds.
  • Complex partial. Initial disorientation is followed by strange movements of the arms or legs or odd vocalizations for one to three minutes, as well as loss of consciousness.
  • Focal Onset Impaired Awareness (formerly called Complex partial). Initial disorientation is followed by strange movements of the arms or legs or odd vocalizations for one to three minutes, as well as loss of consciousness.
  • Myoclonic seizures: Your muscles suddenly jerk as if you’ve been shocked. They may start in the same part of the brain as an atonic seizure, and some people have both myoclonic and atonic seizures.
  • Febrile. Preceded by fever in children younger than 5, these seizures can be very brief tonic-clonic type seizures or partial seizures lasting more than 15 minutes. Most children who have a fever-induced seizure never experience a second seizure.
  • Infantile spasms (West Syndrome). Lasting just a few seconds, bending of limbs, neck, and torso while lying down may occur often during a single day. This usually only strikes children younger than 3, often those with developmental delays or disabilities.
  • Gelastic Seizure. This seizure is characterized by a burst of energy that makes the person having it to sound as if they are laughing or mumbling.

Call Your Doctor About Seizures If:

  • Seizures are prolonged or occur in a continuous series, causing intense muscle contractions or difficulty breathing. This may be a condition known as status epilepticus. This is a rare but life-threatening event that requires immediate medical attention. If not treated aggressively, it can cause permanent damage to the brain.
  • You or someone without a prior history of epilepsy experiences a seizure for the first time. You need a doctor's diagnosis. The cause also could be, stroke, brain tumor, alcohol withdraw, or a drug overdose. In feverish infants, convulsions could be a sign of meningitis. Get medical help immediately.

Show Sources

SOURCES: 

American Academy of Neurology. 

Bazil, C. Living Well with Epilepsy and Other Seizure Disorders: An Expert explains What You Really Need to Know. Collins, 2002. 

Strafstrom, C. Epilepsy Curriculum, November 2004. 

Nadkarni, S. Neurology, June 2005. 

Bialer M. Epilepsy research, September/October 2004.

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