A risk factor is something that makes a person more likely to develop seizures and epilepsy. Sometimes a risk factor can cause  scarring of the brain or lead to areas of the brain not developing or working right. Risk factors include: 

  • Babies who are born small for their age
  • Babies who have seizures in the first month of life
  • Babies who are born with abnormal areas in the brain
  • Bleeding into the brain
  • Abnormal blood vessels in the brain
  • Serious brain injury or lack of oxygen to the brain
  • Brain tumors
  • Infections of the brain: abscess, meningitis, or encephalitis
  • Stroke resulting from blockage of arteries
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Conditions with intellectual and developmental disabilities
  • Seizures occurring within days after head injury ("early posttraumatic seizures")
  • Family history of epilepsy or fever-related seizures
  • Alzheimer's disease (late in the illness)
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Fever-related (febrile) seizures that are unusually long
  • Long episodes of seizures or repeated seizures called status epilepticus
  • Use of illegal drugs such as cocaine
  • Mild head injuries, such as a concussion with just a very brief loss of consciousness, do not cause epilepsy. Yet the effects of repeated mild head injuries and epilepsy is unknown.

What if I don’t have any of those risk factors?

Although the disorders and injuries on these lists help to explain many cases of epilepsy, more people with epilepsy don't have any of these. Often we just don't know how or why epilepsy gets started.

What are seizure triggers?

Even though you may not know the cause of your epilepsy, you can look at whether there are factors (often called ‘triggers’) that precipitate or provoke seizures. These triggers may make a person with epilepsy more likely to have a seizure in certain situations. The triggers could change the number or severity of seizures. Learning if you have any triggers can help you learn what to do next. Sometimes people can learn how to modify their lifestyle or environment to lessen the risk of triggers.

  • Missed medication
  • Lack of sleep or disrupted sleep
  • Illness (both with and without fever)
  • Psychological stress
  • Heavy alcohol use or seizures after alcohol withdrawal
  • Use of cocaine and other recreational drugs such as Ecstasy
  • Over-the-counter drugs, prescription medications or supplements that decrease the effectiveness of seizure medicines
  • Nutritional deficiencies: vitamins and minerals
  • Poor eating habits, such as long times without eating, dehydration or not enough fluids
  • The menstrual cycle or hormonal changes 
  • Flashing lights or patterns
  • Specific activities, noises or foods
Authored by: Steven C. Schachter, MD | Patricia O. Shafer, RN, MN | Joseph I. Sirven, MD on 7/2013
Reviewed by: Joseph I. Sirven, MD | Patricia O. Shafer, RN, MN on 3/2014
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