What is a Seizure Trigger?

Mary McMahon

A seizure trigger is something associated with the onset of seizures in a given patient. Patients with a history of seizures are all slightly different, and there are no universal seizure triggers. Being aware of stimuli linked with seizures can help people avoid triggers and thereby reduce the number of seizures they experience. People with seizure disorders may also have access to medications to reduce the severity and frequency of seizures.

Keeping a diary may help to establish seizure patterns.
Keeping a diary may help to establish seizure patterns.

In a reflex seizure, people react to stimuli like strong odors, flashing lights, touch, and other sensations. Sometimes the stimulus is internal, with some people having seizures when they engage in cognitive processes like complex mathematical calculations. Incidentally, while many people are aware that flashing lights can be a seizure trigger, the actual number of people who experience flashing light as a trigger is relatively low.

High fevers have been linked to seizures in some patients.
High fevers have been linked to seizures in some patients.

The most common trigger for seizures is missing a dose of seizure medication. These medications must be taken as directed or they will be less effective. Another very common cause is sleep deprivation. Stress can act as a trigger, as can alcohol consumption and the use of certain drugs, both prescription and recreational. Dietary triggers can be observed in some patients, and high fevers are also linked with seizures. Head injuries can be a seizure trigger as well.

Individuals with seizure disorders may be encouraged to keep a diary to identify seizure triggers. The diary can note when seizures occur and provide information about what the patient was doing at the time. Over time, patterns may emerge. Almost anything can potentially act as a seizure trigger and patients should not write something off as “too weird” when discussing triggers with their neurologists.

A variety of techniques can be used for dealing with seizures. If seizures can be controlled with medications, taking medications regularly and avoiding prolonged exposure to potential triggers can be beneficial. If seizures cannot be controlled with medication, being aware of situations where triggers may be present and asking friends, family, and coworkers to be sensitive to potential triggers will help people avoid seizures. Seizure disorders are protected under antidiscrimination laws designed to protect people with disabilities and people are entitled to request changes to their workplaces or residences to accommodate triggers. For example, if flashing lights are used as a warning system during fires, people with seizure disorders can request that the frequency of the flashes be changed to prevent them from acting as a seizure trigger.

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