mother with sick child

Does being sick with other illnesses trigger seizures?

A common seizure trigger in people with epilepsy is being sick with some type of acute illness or infection. Head colds, lung infections or sinus infections (caused by viruses or bacteria) can often lead to a change in seizures.

  • The seizures could be triggered by the physical stress of being sick, having a fever, or getting dehydrated if you aren't eating or drinking well.
  • People with seizures who have stomach bugs or illnesses causing upset stomach and vomiting can get dehydrated and may not be able to take their seizure medicines on time.
  • People may also not sleep well when they are sick, adding another possible trigger!

Do over-the-counter (OTC) drugs affect seizures?

Some medicines you can get without a prescription (called over-the-counter or OTC drugs) can potentially increase seizures in people with epilepsy. They could even cause seizures for the first time. If you have epilepsy, talk to your pharmacist or doctor about what OTC drugs you can take.

  • The most common OTC medicine that may affect seizures is probably diphenhydramine. This medicine is the active ingredient in medications like Benadryl, which is used for colds, allergies, and sleep. Other medicines for head colds, allergies or other conditions have ingredients that may affect seizures or seizure medicines.
  • Some OTC drugs may lower the risk of seizures.
  • Nasal saline sprays are safe to use for colds, allergies, and sinus problems.
  • Some herbal medicines also have ingredients that can increase the chance of seizures or affect seizure medicines. Just because they come from nature does not necessarily mean they are safe for you to use.
  • Other common medicines (even aspirin in some cases) can increase side effects of a seizure medicine ;or increase seizures by changing the level of medicine in your blood.
  • Check your anti-seizure medication on epilepsy.com's Seizure Medicine List and the drug's package insert for more information. Ask your pharmacist too!

Do antibiotics affect seizures or seizure medicines?

Some common antibiotics can also make a person with epilepsy more likely to have seizures.

  • If you have an infection and need an antibiotic, ask your primary care provider talk to your epilepsy specialist to see which antibiotics may be best to use.
  • Sometimes a person needs to use an antibiotic for an infection that could also provoke seizures. When this happens, make sure your doctors talk to each other first.
  • Call your epilepsy doctor or nurse if you notice a change in seizures. They may suggest adjusting your seizure medicine or using a rescue medicine (like lorazepam, diazepam, or midazolam) until you are done with the antibiotic.

Some antibiotics can change the amount of seizure medicine in your system. For example, erythromycin or similar antibiotics can raise the amount of certain seizure medicines. This may cause more side effects to the seizure medicine.

  • Talk to your pharmacist and health care provider about antibiotics and seizure medicines.
  • Call your provider if side effects like dizziness, blurry vision, or a change in balance or walking happen after starting an antibiotic.

What can people do to lessen risks of seizures when they are sick with another illness?

  • Keep a diary (paper or electronic) of your seizures and note any triggers, including if you get sick with an infection, cold or other illness.
  • Talk to your epilepsy health care provider before taking a new medicine prescribed by a different doctor.
  • Keep a list of medicines that trigger your seizures or that affect the levels of your seizure medicine(s). Share this list with all health care providers that you see.
  • Ask your epilepsy care provider for a rescue drug and when to take it. Rescue medicines can be used for unexpected changes in seizures that occur once in a while. They are used to help calm down or stop seizures and prevent a seizure emergency. They are not used in place of daily seizure medicine. Rescue medicines should not be used instead of getting emergency medical help for seizure emergencies.
  • Take good care of yourself. When you are sick, drink plenty of fluids, eat as best you can, take recommended medicines to treat a fever, and get rest.
  • If you are given an antibiotic or other medicine to treat the new illness, make sure to take the full course. Call your doctor if the symptoms don’t go away after the medicine is done.
  • Call your epilepsy care provider if you have diarrhea and a change in your seizures. You may not be absorbing all the seizure medicines.
  • Don’t miss any doses of seizure medicine. If you are sick to your stomach and can’t hold down your medicine, call your epilepsy doctor or go to an emergency room so you can get something to stop vomiting and help you take your seizure medicines.
Authored By: 
Patty Obsorne Shafer RN, MN
Joseph I. Sirven MD
Authored Date: 
07/2013
Reviewed By: 
Elaine Wirrell MD
on: 
Sunday, March 8, 2020