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How to help someone who is having a seizure

Did you know about 1 in 10 people may have a seizure during their lifetime? With such a high probability, chances are someone may have a seizure around you at some point. Do you know how to help someone who is having a seizure?

What are the symptoms of a seizure?

A seizure occurs when parts of the brain have a burst of abnormal electrical signals that interrupt normal signals. There are many kinds of seizures and all of them have varying symptoms. Knowing the signs of the two most common types – grand mal seizures and focal seizures – can prepare you to help someone having a seizure.

Grand Mal Seizures

Seizures come in many forms but grand mal seizures, which are also known as tonic-clonic seizures, are what most people recognize. Grand mal seizures can be recognized by a person: 

  • Becoming rigid  
  • Losing consciousness 
  • Falling to the floor  
  • Convulsing  

Sometimes they may also go blue around the mouth due to irregular breathing, and lose control of their bladder or bowels and bite their tongue due to lack of motor function control.

Focal Seizures

Focal seizures, also known as partial seizures, do not have the severe appearance of grand mal seizures so they may be more difficult to recognize. Some symptoms include a person: 

  • Not being aware of their surroundings 
  • Wandering around without knowing what they are doing 
  • Plucking at their clothes 
  • Smacking their lips or swallowing repeatedly 

How to help someone having a seizure

Seizures often happen rapidly. If you are able to identify the onset before a seizure occurs then encourage the person to lay down. Here is how you can help as the seizure begins: 

Protect them from injury by removing harmful objects nearby and cushioning their head. 

  • Look for an epilepsy identity card, which may give instructions on what to do. 
  • Time how long the person convulses or remains unresponsive. 
  • Gently place them in the recovery position (video) after the convulsions have stopped. 
  • Stay with them until they are fully recovered.

When they come out of a seizure, the person will be disoriented and sore. They will not remember what happened during the episode so calmly explain what happened.

What not to do when someone has a seizure

Remembering what not to do when someone is having a seizure is just as important. Incorrectly handling a seizure can make the situation worse. Be sure to avoid the following:  

  • Do not restrain their movements in any way 
  • Do not put anything in their mouth
  • Do not try to move them – unless they are in danger in their current position 
  • Do not attempt mouth-to-mouth breaths (they usually start breathing again on their own) 
  • Do not give them anything to eat or drink until they are fully recovered 
  • Do not attempt to bring them around or act in a way that could frighten them, such as making abrupt movements or shouting at them 

If a person is in a wheelchair then let them remain seated in their chair during the seizure. Put the brakes on to stop the chair from moving and gently support them so they don’t fall out.

Should you call 911?

According to the CDC, seizures do not usually require emergency medical attention. The CDC suggests calling 911 if:

  • The person has never had a seizure before. 
  • The person has difficulty breathing or waking after the seizure. 
  • The seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes. 
  • The person has another seizure soon after the first one. 
  • The person is hurt during the seizure. 
  • The seizure happens in water. 
  • The person has a health condition like diabetes, heart disease or is pregnant.

Oftentimes, a person having a seizure will have some kind of identification card with instructions on who to call or what to do to help. Remember to remain calm and do not crowd around the person having the seizure.

Links for seizure assistance

Download the free American Red Cross First Aid app for instant access to step-by-step first aid advice, including advice about seizures and epilepsy. 

Learn more about how to respond to seizures safely from Epilepsy Foundation Seizure First Aid and Safety.

Take this free online course from Epilepsy Action First Aid Module to learn what different seizures look like and how to help. 

Find out how to prepare for seizure safety based on your profession.

Larry Wu, MD
Larry Wu, MD

Regional Medical Director

Larry is a regional medical director for Blue Cross NC providing consultative services for employee health solutions, prevention, chronic disease, care management, medical expense and utilization management. He's a family physician with over 20 years in clinical practice, has served as clinic director in the Indian Health Service, Kaiser Permanente and Duke Family Medicine and currently maintains a part-time clinical practice.

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