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Drug Treatment of Epilepsy

Image of a woman about to take a pill.

Typically when you are diagnosed you will be prescribed Anti-Seizure Medications (ASMs). Up to 70% of people with epilepsy have their seizures controlled with ASMs. If you only have had one seizure, medication may not be prescribed straight away. This is because not all first seizures are diagnosed as epilepsy. If the doctor feels there is a high chance of a second seizure then medication may be prescribed. Otherwise, your doctor may prescribe medication if you have had two or more seizures.

Beginning treatment

When your doctor prescribes medication they will choose one they feel is suitable for you, so not everyone with epilepsy will be on the same medication. There are several medications available and which medication your doctor chooses will depend on factors such as (but not limited to):

  • your seizure type
  • how old you are
  • any other medical conditions you may have
  • other medications you may be on
  • whether you are a female of childbearing age.

It’s helpful to know the terms that are used when describing whether epilepsy medications are being taken singly or combined. Doctors will typically start you on just one drug. This is called monotherapy. The risk of side effects is lower on one drug. If one medication controls your seizures and you have few or no side effects then you may be kept on this medication.

If the medication is not working you may be tried on another medication instead. When other epilepsy medications are added on to your main medication, this is called adjunctive treatment. When more than one medication is used this is called polytherapy. With polytherapy there is a greater risk of side effects but also a greater chance of getting seizures under control.

Free medication schemes

Epilepsy medication is available free to everyone on the Long-Term Illness Scheme. You apply to the Health Service Executive. It only covers medication for 16 specified illnesses, including epilepsy. It does not cover other prescriptions you may have. You can download an application form for the Long-Term Illness scheme, and further information, by visiting the HSE website.

If you have a medical card, this will cover the cost of all medicines but will mean a prescription charge per item each month. Medical card holders can avoid these prescription charges for epilepsy medications by also applying to the Long Term Illness Scheme and having epilepsy medication dispensed free under that scheme instead. You can find further information on applying for a medical card by visiting the HSE website.

Branded and generic drugs

It is very important that when you collect your prescription from the pharmacy that you check that you are getting exactly the same medication each time. There are multiple forms of many epilepsy medications. Branded versions are the version first produced by the drug company who develop the drug. Generic versions are made by other manufacturers. They can be compared to copied versions of the drug, and while they might be cheaper there can be slight differences in the ingredients making up their form. In other medical conditions this may not matter but in epilepsy it can, as the brain can be sensitive to the slight differences between the drugs. For this reason it is important not to switch from branded to generic versions of the same drug or from one generic to another generic. If you are put on a generic to start with you should continue to take the same generic afterwards. If you are started on a branded medication then it is important to stick with that form too. If your doctor writes “Do Not Substitute” on the script, then you must be given the exact format prescribed. Always check your medication before you leave the pharmacy to be sure it is exactly what is prescribed and what you usually receive. You can find further information on this by visiting the 'Generic Substitution and Interchangeability' section of our website. 

What form does the medication come in?

ASMs come in many different formats. There are tablets, chewable and crushable pills, coated pills, capsules, syrups, sachets, and liquids. Discuss with the prescribing doctor which form will suit you. Syrups may suit young children best.

Emergency medication

Several emergency medications are used to stop prolonged seizures. Rectal Diazepam comes in a tube and is inserted into the rectum as prescribed. Buccal midazolam is administered into the buccal cavity between the cheek and gum. Neither of these emergency medications are used on a routine treatment basis; they are for use in emergencies involving prolonged seizures and clusters of seizures. . Buccal midazolam is the preferred choice of emergency medication for many patients and carers.

Epilepsy Ireland provides training on the correct administration of Buccal Midazolam for parents and carers, who may be supporting a loved one who has been prescribed the medication. You can read more about this service by visiting the 'Our Services' section of our website. We also provide training to professionals who may be supporting a person with epilepsy in a professional capacity (i.e, a teacher who may have a child with epilepsy in their class prescribed Buccal Midazolam). Further information on this training can be found by visiting the 'Training' section of our website.