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Epilepsy explained

internal representation of a brain

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder which affects the brain. It is a tendency to have repeated seizures. This tendency can be long term but the seizures can be controlled meaning that a person can have epilepsy but they may not have active seizures. Seizures can start in a part of the brain or happen in both sides of the brain at once.

Over 45,000 people in Ireland have epilepsy meaning it is one of the most common neurological conditions in the country, while over 50 million people live with epilepsy worldwide. For many people, their epilepsy affects them most while seizures are active. For others, the impact of having epilepsy may be longer term, if their seizures continue. This page provides some key information about epilepsy, as well as signposting to other sections of our site where you can find further information and learn more. 

Alongside the information contained within this section of our website, we also have a comprehensive booklet available entitled 'Epilepsy Explained'. This resource is available to read and download at the end of this page. 

If you need further information or support after reading this section of our website, please do not hesitate to contact your local Community Resource Officer. You can find their details by visiting the 'Our Local Service' section of our website.

What causes epilepsy?

In half of cases there is no known cause. The person has no illness, disease or damage to explain epilepsy. This is called Idiopathic epilepsy.

Some causes are inborn or developmental such as genetic abnormalities or structural problems in the brain like malformed veins or areas which have not developed normally. Genetic factors can be unique to the person or hereditary. Most people with epilepsy have no family history of it but some epilepsies are more common in some families. A low seizure threshold, which can reduce the brain's resistance to a seizure, may run in families. Some epilepsies are genetic but may not be inherited. A genetic change may be part of the person’s unique genetic makeup but may not affect their family members. Research into genetics and epilepsy is finding more and more genetic causes for epilepsy.

It is important to note that a person can be diagnosed with epilepsy at any stage of their life. 

How is epilepsy treated? Can epilepsy be cured?

The treatment of epilepsy is extremely individual and depends on factors such as the type of seizures the person experiences and the area of the brain the seizures originate from. However, with the identification of the right treatment route by an individual's medical team, up to 70% of those living with the condition can go on to become seizure-free if the right treatment is identified.

The main treatment for epilepsy are Anti-Seizure Medications or ASMs for short. The ASMs prescribed will depend on the seizure type. Sometimes more than one ASM is needed. ASMs are all designed to stop too much electrical activity in the brain. The goal is to stop the seizures completely using one drug, or the fewest drugs with the least side effects. This can sometimes take time to achieve. Seizure control is more likely when you are taking medication as prescribed and not changing it unless guided by your doctor or specialist nurse.

Other treatments such as surgery can be an option for some people with epilepsy, which can be successful in controlling a person's seizures.  

In terms of a cure for epilepsy, typically we talk about control of seizures - which in most cases is achieved with ASMs. When someone is seizure free and off medication for many years their epilepsy can be considered resolved. However, resolved does not mean the same as cured and there is no guarantee that seizures would never return. Typically, the majority of people with epilepsy will have to continue to take medications to control their seizures for their lifetime. Further information on epilepsy treatment and surgery can be found by visiting the 'Treatment' section of our website.

What is a seizure?

Epilepsy is the collective term for a large group of anatomical and functional disorders of the brain that are characterized by repeated seizures.

In simple terms a seizure happens when ordinary brain activity is suddenly disrupted. A seizure can be described as an internal electrical storm. It is the consequence of abnormal, excessive discharges of nerve cells. It is this sudden unexpected loss of control that accounts for many of the misconceptions and the prejudice associated with epilepsy. Seizures are the symptoms of the disorder. There are many different types of seizures and further information on these can be found by visiting the 'Safety & Seizures' section of our website. 

What causes a seizure?

For many people a seizure just happens. However, certain triggers can make seizures more likely. Common triggers can include missed medication, too much alcohol, lack of sleep, stress, and illnesses or fevers. Everyone is different and what affects one person may have no effect on another. If you find that certain things trigger your seizures, it is wise to try to avoid whatever it may be. In this way, you may be able to control the number of seizures you have by changing your lifestyle. Further information on seizure triggers and lifestyle can be found by visiting the 'Lifestyle & Triggers' section of our website. 

How do you respond to a seizure?

Seizure first aid is often misunderstood as being  complex and unfortunately there can be many myths associated with seizure first aid - such as the wrongly held believes that there is only one type of seizure; that a person can swallow their tongue; or that a person needs to be held down or restrained during a seizure. These are all myths!

The key measures that need to be taken when responding to a seizure can be summarised in three key words - TIME, SAFE, STAY. It is vitally important to know what to do in the event of a seizure and you can learn exactly what is meant by TIME, SAFE, STAY by visiting the 'Seizure First Aid' section of our website.  

Do flashing lights affect everyone with epilepsy?

Only a small number of people with epilepsy (3-5%) are photosensitive and may have seizures due to flickering lights like strobes or flicker of sunlight through trees. This is diagnosed on an EEG. If you aren’t sure if this applies to you, ask your medical team. You can learn more about the diagnosis of epilepsy by visiting the 'Diagnosis' section of our website. 

What support can Epilepsy Ireland offer?

We are there to support people with epilepsy and their families on their respective journeys with the condition. We regularly host online or in-person events and below we have outlined information about some of the work we do:

The above is a snapshot of how we can help and support people with epilepsy and the wider community, but if you are unsure of whether we might be able to help or need further information on a specific query, get in contact with your local Community Resource Officer or get in touch with our Head Office by calling 014557500 or email

Where can I learn more about the lived experience of Epilepsy?

As noted, epilepsy is an incredibly individual condition and can affect people differently. Over the years, many of our volunteers have shared their experiences with us, which have helped support others on their journey with the condition. You can find some of these testimonies by visiting the 'Awareness & Campaigns' section of our website. 

Downloadable Resources