Generalized tonic-clonic seizures may also be called grand mal or convulsive seizures. They can be scary to watch if you’ve never seen one before. The person loses consciousness, falls, stiffens (the tonic portion of the seizure and jerks (the clonic portion of the seizure).

Although a convulsive seizure looks painful, the person is not conscious during the seizure and not aware of what is happening. After the seizure, the person may feel pain from tongue biting, muscle soreness, headache, or bruises from falling. The seizure is often followed by confusion and tiredness, in what is called the postictal period. These seizures usually last less than 3 minutes, but the time can seem like an eternity to others.

What to Do During the Seizure

  • STAY with the person.
    • Stay calm.
    • Time how long the seizures lasts, especially the stiffening and jerking movements.
  • Keep the person SAFE.
    • Help the person lie down, and place something soft under the head and neck.
    • Keep the person (especially the head) away from sharp or hard objects, such as the corner of a table.
    • Loosen all tight clothing. For example, undo top shirt buttons, belts, and skirt or pant buttons. Remove any eyeglasses or tight neck chains.
    • Keep onlookers away. One or two people can give first aid. It can be embarrassing for the person to awaken to a crowd of people.
  • Turn the person onto one SIDE with the head and mouth angled toward the ground. This helps saliva or fluids to drain out of the mouth. It also prevents the tongue from blocking the airway.
  • Do not try to take out contact lenses. You could easily scratch someone’s eye by trying to remove the small lens during a seizure.
  • Do not hold the person down. You may injure the person or get injured yourself.
  • Do not put any object in the person's mouth. The tongue cannot be swallowed during a seizure, yet you could get hurt. The muscles for chewing are very strong, so a finger can be bitten, or an object can be bitten off and cause choking.

What to Do After the Seizure

  • Do not try to restrain the person. He or she may be confused and become agitated or fight against the restraints.
  • Try to keep the person in a safe place. Walking around may be okay, but keep them away from a street, stairs, or other dangerous places.
  • Don't give water, pills or food to swallow until the person is awake. Food, liquid or pills could go into the lungs instead of the stomach if they try to drink or eat when not fully aware.
  • Rescue medicines that are placed inside the cheek can be given if recommended by their health care team.
  • Stay with the person until he or she is fully alert and oriented.
    • Be careful. The person may say they are fine, but still be quite confused.
    • Ask a series of questions that require more than a yes or no answer, such as "What is your address?" and "What is the date?
  • Have witnesses tell the person who had a seizure what happened and how long it lasted. Writing this down is best.
  • Give reassurance and support!

When to Get Emergency Help

  • If this is the person's first tonic-clonic seizure.
  • If the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes.
  • If the person has one seizure after another.
  • If the person is injured or if injury is suspected.
  • If the person isn’t returning to their usual state.
  • If you don’t know the person and they are alone.
  • If the person asks for help.
  • If the person is pregnant.
  • If the seizure occurs in water.

What else can be done?

  • Follow the person's Seizure Action Plan on what to do during or after the seizure.
    • If the person has a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS), use the magnet by swiping it across the generator.
    • If a person has a rescue medication prescribed, follow the instructions on when and how to give the medicine. Know when to give a second dose of medicine if seizures repeat in clusters or don’t stop. This is especially important for people who live far from a hospital or who are travelling to remote areas (going camping, for instance). Examples of drugs used as rescue medicines include diazepam given by rectum (Diastat), lorazepam or other forms of diazepam that can be given under the tongue or into the nose.
  • After the seizure is over:
    • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) is helpful for minor aches.
    • The person should see a doctor if they have severe back pain or head pain. There could be a serious injury that needs treatment.
    • Let an emergency responder move the person and take them by ambulance.
    • A fever may follow a seizure, usually because of the muscle activity pains and the effects of the seizure. If a person has a fever that is over 102°F, lasts more than 6 hours, or starts more than 3 hours after a seizure, the person should see a doctor. Sometimes secretions pass down the respiratory tract during the seizure and cause pneumonia.
Authored By: 
Joseph I. Sirven MD
Patty Obsorne Shafer RN, MN
Authored Date: 
09/2017
Reviewed By: 
Epilepsy Foundation Communications
on: 
Friday, January 3, 2020