During a seizure, there are bursts of electrical activity in your brain, sort of like an electrical storm. This activity causes different symptoms depending on the type of seizure and what part of the brain is involved. Seizures can take on many different forms and affect different people in different ways.

Anything that your brain does normally can also happen during a seizure. For example, your brain helps you move, see, feel and do many other things. During a seizure, you may move, see, feel or do other things, whether you want to or not!  Also, in some seizures, parts of the brain can still function normally while others can’t.

Seizures have a beginning, middle, and end, but sometimes not all the parts of a seizure are visible or easy to tell apart. You probably won’t have every stage or symptom described below, but if you have more than one seizure, you may notice that your seizures are stereotypic (they happen the same way or are similar each time). Seizures are episodic (they come and go) and they can be unpredictable.

Will I know if I’m going to have a seizure?

Some people are aware that a seizure may occur hours or even days before it happens. Other people may not be aware of the beginning and don’t have any warning signs. An early warning sign of a seizure is called a “prodrome.”

These feelings are usually not part of the seizure, but they are a warning that a seizure may come. Not everyone has these signs, but if you do, you can take steps to stay safe, like get in a safe place, make sure to take your medicine on time, or use a rescue treatment if you are having clusters of seizures (if one has been prescribed for you). 

What happens before a seizure?

Some people have an “aura,” or warning. This is actually the first symptom of a seizure. It’s considered part of the seizure, since bursts of electrical activity are already going on in the brain when this occurs. During this part of the seizure, you are still conscious and aware of what is going on.

Some people have no aura or warning. When they have a seizure, they lose consciousness or awareness right away.

The aura might be a feeling that’s hard to describe, or it might be easy to recognize. An aura is often a change in feeling, sensation, thought, or behavior. If you have more than one seizure, you may have a similar aura each time.

Usually, an aura happens before the main part of a seizure. The aura can also happen alone, without any other symptoms. That’s called a “simple partial seizure,” or a “partial seizure without change in awareness.”

What are some common symptoms of an aura or partial seizure?

Changes in your thoughts and feelings:

  • Strange, negative, or scary feelings, like fear or panic
  • Pleasant feelings
  • Racing thoughts
  • Déjà vu (a feeling that you have been somewhere before when you haven’t)
  • Jamais vu (a feeling that something is unfamiliar even though it isn’t)
  • Thinking that your body parts feel or look different
  • Out of body feeling

Changes in your body:

  • Feeling hot, cold or sweaty
  • Looking pale or flushed
  • Heart racing
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Nausea (feeling like you might throw up)
  • Other feelings in your stomach (like a rising feeling from your stomach to your throat)

Changes in your senses:

  • Headache or pain in the body
  • Numbness, tingling, or feeling like an electric shock in part of your body
  • Unusual smells, sounds, or tastes
  • Vision loss, blurry vision
  • Seeing flashing lights or things that are not really there
  • Hearing loss (not being able to hear)
  • Hearing strange or different sounds
  • Unusual tastes or smells (for example, a bad smell like burning rubber)

What else can happen during a seizure?

The middle of a seizure is called the “ictal phase.” This is the time from when visible symptoms of the seizure start (including the aura if you have one) to when the seizure activity in your brain stops.

You may keep having some symptoms even after the seizure activity in your brain has stopped. This is because some symptoms are after-effects of a seizure, like sleepiness, confusion, certain movements or being unable to move, and difficulty talking or thinking normally. 

What are some common symptoms of a seizure?

Changes in your thoughts and awareness:

  • Blacking out (losing awareness)
  • Passing out (losing consciousness, being unconscious)
  • Feeling detached, confused, or spacey
  • Forgetting things (memory lapses)
  • Feeling distracted, or daydreaming

Changes in the way you talk:

  • Can’t talk at all or can’t get get words out
  • Making nonsense or garbled sounds
  • Saying things that don’t make sense to what is going on around you.

Problems with your eyes:

  • Blinking a lot
  • Looking up or to one side
  • Staring
  • Pupils dilate (appear larger than normal)

Changes with your muscles:

  • Your muscles may become very rigid (stiff), tense, or tight feeling. This can happen to all or part of your body. If you are standing, you may fall “like a tree trunk.”
  • Your muscles may become very limp. This is called “low muscle tone.” You may not be able to move, your neck and head may drop forward, or you may slump or fall forward. You can have low muscle tone in all or part of your body.
  • You may have tremors (shaking movements), twitching or jerking movements that you can’t control. This could happen on one or both sides of your face, arms, legs or your whole body. It could start in one area and then spread to other areas, or it could stay in one place.
  • You may have something called repeated non-purposeful movements, or “automatisms,” in your face, arms, or legs. Some examples of these are:
    • Lip-smacking or chewing movements
    • Repeated movements of hands, like wringing your hands, playing with buttons or objects in your hands, or waving
    • Dressing or undressing
    • Walking or running
  • You may keep doing what you were doing before the seizure started. This is called repeated purposeful movement.
  • You may have a specific sequence of movements called a convulsion. In a convulsion, you lose consciousness, your body becomes rigid or tense, and then you have fast jerking movements.

Other changes in your body (usually seen with tonic clonic seizures)

  • May have changes in breathing
  • Drooling
  • Not being able to swallow
  • Biting your tongue (this may happen when your muscles tighten and it makes your teeth clench together)
  • Losing control of your bladder or bowels

What happens after a seizure?

As a seizure ends, some people recover immediately, while others may take minutes to hours to feel like their usual self. The recovery period is different depending on the type of seizure and what part of the brain was affected. The recovery period after a seizure is called the “postictal phase.”

What are some common symptoms after a seizure?

Changes in your thoughts and feelings:

  • Being slow to respond, or not being able to respond right away, when someone talks to you
  • Forgetting things (memory loss)
  • Having a hard time talking or writing
  • Feeling “fuzzy”
  • Feeling depressed, sad, or upset
  • Feeling scared, confused, or anxious
  • Feeling frustrated, embarrassed, or ashamed

Changes in your body:

  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Headache or other types of pain
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Feeling thirsty
  • Feeling weak (maybe only in one part or side of your body)
  • Feeling like you need to go to the bathroom, or losing control of your bowels or bladder
  • Wanting to sleep or feeling tired
  • If you fell during your seizure, you may have injuries, like bruises, cuts, broken bones or a head injury. If you were injured, see your doctor or to the emergency room.

How can I connect with other people who have seizures?

Many people who have seizures find it helpful to talk to others who share their experiences. Remember, you are not alone!

Authored By: 
Patty Obsorne Shafer RN, MN
Authored Date: