Even today, myths, misconceptions and discrimination can surround epilepsy, often causing more distress than the seizures themselves and limiting people's participation in society.
Let's debunk some of the more common myths straight away...
Epilepsy is contagious
False. You cannot catch epilepsy from another person!
Epilepsy is a form of mental illness
False. Epilepsy is an umbrella term covering different types of seizure disorders. It is a functional, physical, neurological condition, affecting approximately 37,000 people in Ireland.
All people with epilepsy must avoid flashing or flickering lights
False. Only about 3-5% of people with epilepsy are photosensitive. As a result, the vast majority of people with epilepsy do not need to avoid flashing lights. Even most of those who are photosensitive can still watch television and use computers without significant difficulty as only particular patterns actually cause seizures to occur.
All seizures involve falling to the ground and convulsions
False. A convulsive (or Tonic-Clonic seizure) in which the person becomes rigid and shakes is just one of the many different types of seizures. Seizures involve different parts of the brain and depending on which part of the brain is involved, there will be different physical symptoms. For example, a seizure may also lead a person to experience blank stares, rapid blinking or intense emotional and/or physical sensations (e.g. fear, joy, unpleasant sights or smells). It is also untrue that all seizures involve a loss of consciousness. If a person has a Simple Partial seizure, they will know what is happening and are aware that they are having a seizure.
You should put something in a person's mouth during a seizure
False. This myth stems from a mistaken belief that during a seizure, people can swallow their tongue or suffocate. In fact, it's physically impossible to swallow your tongue and you should never force something into the mouth of someone having a seizure or try to hold their tongue. You could damage teeth, puncture gums, or even break someone's jaw. You also risk being bitten if you attempt this.
You can stop a seizure by holding the person down
False. Do not attempt to stop a seizure by restraining the person experiencing the seizure. Instead, protect the person from injury by removing any harmful objects that may be nearby. Cushion the person's head and gently place the person in the recovery position when the seizure has finished. Stay with the person until recovery is complete. Find out more about seizure first-aid
All seizures require immediate medical attention
Seeing someone have a seizure can be very frightening and instinctively many people call an ambulance. However this is not always necessary. An uncomplicated convulsive seizure in someone who has epilepsy is not a medical emergency, even though it may look like one. It stops naturally after a few minutes without ill effects. The average person is able to continue about his/her business after a rest period, and may need only limited (or no) assistance in resuming their normal activities. It may be worth checking if the person is wearing inscribed medical ID jewellery around their neck or on their wrist to determine if the person has pre-existing epilepsy.
People with epilepsy can't drive a car.
False. In Ireland a person who is seizure free for one year can legally drive a car.
Epilepsy will affect a person's employment prospects.
It is not true that people with epilepsy cannot work or shouldn't be in jobs of responsibility and stress. People with epilepsy work at all levels and in all careers. We aren't always aware of them because many people, even today, do not talk about having epilepsy for fear of what others might think. However, it is true that the impact of epilepsy on people's lives varies a great deal from person to person and for some people, holding down a job or building a career is not possible. In addition, there are some careers that people with active epilepsy cannot hold e.g. member of the Garda or Army or jobs involving driving (subject to certain conditions).
Epilepsy will affect a person's ability to take part in sports or other leisure activities.
In most cases, it won't. A lot will depend on the degree of seizure control and the type of sport activity involved. Everyone's epilepsy is different, but as long as it's safe for the individual to take part and they let their coaches and team mates know how best to help them in the event of a seizure, then they can enjoy their chosen sport.