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Epilepsy vs. seizures: What’s the difference?

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Epilepsy vs. seizuresTreatmentDiagnosisRisk factorsSummary
Epilepsy is a condition that causes imbalances in your brain’s electrical rhythms, resulting in seizures. Temporary changes in the electrical functioning of your brain can cause this.
Medically reviewed by Nancy Hammond, M.D.
Written by D. M. Pollock
Updated on July 27, 2023

Seizures happen when the electrical impulses that carry signals throughout your brain become irregular. Sometimes, these different electrical patterns happen more than once, becoming chronic. When seizures become a recurrent problem, you may have epilepsy.  

You may experience a seizure without having epilepsy, but you cannot have epilepsy without experiencing seizures.

Several treatment options can help you manage epilepsy, such as antiepileptic medications, diet therapy, and in severe cases, surgery.

What is the difference between epilepsy and seizures?

Two packets of anti-epileptic medication and a glass of water on a small wooden table.
Photography by AsiaVision/Getty Images

Seizures

Seizures are specific, one-off incidences of unusual electrical signaling patterns in your brain that cause unusual behavior. The location of the disruption in your brain determines the specific symptoms you will experience.

Seizures can occur in response to specific causes. For example:

  • infections
  • brain tumors
  • drug withdrawal
  • low blood sugar
  • stroke
  • traumatic head injury
  • metabolic conditions like kidney failure
  • choking

Seizures can be generalized or focal. Focal seizures affect a small part of your brain, and their symptoms are often harder to spot than those from a generalized seizure. Some focal seizures may develop into generalized seizures.

Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a long-term health condition that causes recurrent seizures. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 3.4 million adults in the United States have epilepsy.

There is often no specific cause for epilepsy. Doctors typically diagnose epilepsy only when:

  • there is no specific cause, such as head trauma or low blood sugar
  • you experience over 2 seizures, more than 24 hours apart
  • imaging tests clearly show irregular brain activity

By understanding the specific cause of individual seizures, a healthcare professional can differentiate whether your seizures are a result of epilepsy.

There are several types of epilepsy. The type depends on what triggers the seizures. For example, photosensitive epilepsy causes seizures in response to flashing lights.

How to treat epilepsy and seizures?

Treatment for epilepsy aims to reduce and eventually stop you from experiencing seizures.

The type of treatment plan a healthcare professional will recommend depends on the following:

  • how severe your condition is
  • your overall health at the time of diagnosis
  • your response to other treatments

Medications

Most medications that healthcare professionals prescribe to manage seizure activity are the same as they would prescribe to a person with epilepsy.

These medications are known as antiepileptic drugs, which work by reducing the excessive electrical signals that cause seizures. Some antiepileptic medications include:

Side effects can occur with antiepileptic medications, but these are unusual and present in 7–30% of people. These side effects are typically mild and reversible but can include:

  • drowsiness
  • impaired vision
  • nausea
  • dizziness

Treatment for epilepsy is often effective. About 70% of people who take medication for epilepsy and go more than 5 years without a seizure can enter remission. Some may eventually be able to stop taking their medication altogether.

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Diet therapy

Research proves that implementing the ketogenic diet into your lifestyle can help. This diet is high in fat and protein but very low in carbohydrates and can work to reduce inflammation in your brain. It can reduce the frequency of seizures you experience.

The ketogenic diet is a particularly effective natural remedy for children with epilepsy who do not respond well to more traditional treatments, like medication. For example, an older study from 2016 shows that nearly 40% of children trying the ketogenic diet see a reduction in the frequency of their seizures by over 50%.

Before starting a new diet, it is important to speak with a healthcare professional.

Surgery

If your condition is severe, surgery may help prevent seizures, especially if a tumor or mass is causing your seizures.

Vagus nerve stimulation is a type of surgery that implants an electrical device into your chest, which regulates the electrical impulses in your brain. It can prevent any irregular signals and reduce the frequency of seizures. These devices can last up to 15 years.

There are also several other surgical options that a doctor may suggest for epilepsy, including:

  • focal resection involves removing the area of the brain that is causing seizures
  • lesionectomy removes any lesions surrounding the brain
  • laser interstitial thermal therapy is a noninvasive surgery using a laser to target specific areas of the brain which is causing seizures
  • deep brain stimulation involves the implantation of an electrical stimulation device that interprets signals resulting in seizures

How is epilepsy diagnosed?

A seizure can be a sign of a serious underlying medical condition, so it is important to seek medical advice as soon as possible if you suspect you have had a seizure.

A healthcare professional will ask for your complete medical history and a description of your symptoms. Blood tests can help a doctor to rule out any possibility of underlying medical conditions, such as:

  • infection
  • kidney failure
  • low blood sugar

They will also perform an exam to measure your motor abilities and brain function.

An electroencephalogram (EEG) is the most common way of diagnosing epilepsy. It is a noninvasive test that measures the electrical patterns in your brain, often while you are asleep.

A doctor may also request imaging tests to check for structural abnormalities in the brain that could be causing the seizures. These can include:

  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
  • computed tomography (CT) scan
  • positron emission tomography (PET) scan

Risk factors

Your genetics play a key role in determining if you will develop epilepsy, with many cases beginning in childhood. Stroke is also a leading cause of seizures and epilepsy.

According to recent research, the following factors can increase your risk of experiencing an epileptic seizure:

  • being over the age of 40 years
  • having difficulty sleeping
  • having health issues

The Association of Emergency Physicians suggests that when you experience a seizure for the first time, it is important to seek advice from a medical professional as soon as possible. However, if you already have a diagnosis of epilepsy, there typically is no need to visit the doctor after a seizure unless your episodes increase in frequency or severity.

Summary

Seizures result from atypical electrical activity in your brain that can happen unexpectedly. People who experience recurrent seizures receive a diagnosis of epilepsy. You need to experience at least 2 seizures for a doctor to diagnose epilepsy.

A doctor will run numerous tests to determine the cause of your seizures. These include blood tests and imaging tests to eliminate any underlying medical conditions.

By working with a doctor, you can find the best treatment plan for you, which often involves a combination of medications and therapies.

If you notice the frequency and severity of your seizures increasing, it is important to speak with a doctor as soon as possible.

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