Nov. 18, 2022 – Nearly 1 in 100 people infected with COVID-19 developed epilepsy or seizures within 6 months of getting sick, a new study says.

The risk is greatest among children and among those who were not hospitalized to be treated for COVID-19. 

“While the overall risk of developing seizures or epilepsy was low – less than 1% of all people with COVID-19, given the large number of people who have been infected with COVID-19, this could result in increases in the number of people with seizures and epilepsy,” said study author Arjune Sen, MD, PhD, in a press release. “In addition, the increased risk of seizures and epilepsy in children gives us another reason to try to prevent COVID-19 infections in kids.”

Published this week in the journal Neurology, the study evaluated two groups – those infected with COVID-19 and those infected with the flu. Each group had 152,754 people who were followed for 6 months. 

Those in the COVID-19 group were 55% more likely to develop epilepsy or seizures during that time, compared to those in the flu group. For the COVID-19 group, the incidence of epilepsy or seizures was 0.94%, compared to 0.60% for flu patients. Among children, the incidence was 1.34% among COVID-19 patients and 0.69% for flu patients.

Also concerning was the higher rate of epilepsy and seizures among patients with relatively mild symptoms, compared to those who were hospitalized with COVID-19, wrote Wyatt Bensken, PhD, and Terence J. O'Brien, MD, in a commentary published alongside the study. They also said that health care providers who deal with brain and nervous system disorders need to be prepared for an increase in patients. That’s because even though the chance of those experiencing seizures or epilepsy is low, the large number of people infected with COVID-19 could mean a large increase in the number of people who develop epilepsy or seizures. 

One theory for the findings is that COVID-19 may cause problems with brain function by affecting the brain cells “that make up the lining of blood vessels or by causing inflammation, immune overreaction, or other mechanisms,” according to a summary of the study published by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Study authors said their research was limited by not knowing which variants of COVID-19 infected the patients.

Show Sources

American Academy of Neurology: “Study finds risk of seizures is higher after COVID-19 than after influenza,” “The Significance of the Increased Incidence of New Onset Seizures and Epilepsy.”

Neurology: “Incidence of Epilepsy and Seizures Over the First 6 Months After a COVID-19 Diagnosis: A Retrospective Cohort Study.”

Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy: “Post-COVID epilepsy rare but more common than after flu.”

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