Epilepsy triggers are what set off seizures. Triggers can be anything, from flashing lights to weather to something you’ve eaten.
Once you know your seizure triggavoid them or be prepared for when you do encounter them. This can make a big difference in how well you control your epilepsy.
This article examines what causes epilepsy, common seizure and epilepsy triggers, and how to avoid them.
Epilepsy has many causes, including:
- Brain trauma or structural abnormalities
- Autoimmune disease
- Metabolic problems
- Infectious illness
- Lack of oxygen during birth
Regardless of the cause, triggers sometimes interrupt the brain’s orderly electrical rhythms, leading to seizures (sudden, abnormal bursts of electricity).
Common Seizure Triggers
Many things can trigger seizures, including medication, stress, lack of sleep, nutrition, and more.
Medication can cause seizures in two ways, either from taking specific drugs or missing your epilepsy drugs.
Some common over-the-counter (OTC) medications can lead to seizures both in people with or without epilepsy. They may even trigger your first seizure before an epilepsy diagnosis.
Other medications may not directly cause a seizure but can lower the threshold for one, making it more likely that you’ll have a seizure.
OTC medications that may cause seizure activity include:
- Benadryl (diphenhydramine)
- Sudafed (pseudoephedrine)
- Cold, flu, and allergy medications that contain one or both of the above-mentioned drugs
- Anti-inflammatories, such as Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen)
Be sure to ask your healthcare provider how safe OTC medications are before taking them. If something has triggered a seizure in the past, don’t take it again.
Missed Epilepsy Medication
Missing one or more doses of your epilepsy medication may put you at risk of a seizure. If your epilepsy causes memory problems, you may sometimes forget to take it. However, it’s essential to make sure you take your medication consistently and around the same time(s) every day.
If you miss a dose, the best thing to do is check the packaging information for your specific drug or ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist what to do.
In general, the recommendations are:
- For a once-a-day dose: Take the missed dose as soon as you realize you’ve forgotten.
- For a twice-a-day dose: Only take the missed one if you realize you missed it within six hours. If you don’t realize it until later, don’t take it and take your next regular dose at the right time.
- Do not take a double dose: Doubling up on anti-seizure medications could cause unpleasant side effects.
Remembering to Take Your Medication
If you frequently forget to take your seizure medication, you may want to use alarms or an app to help you remember.
Lack of Sleep
Not getting enough sleep can lead to changes in your brain that trigger seizures. When you have epilepsy, though, it can be hard to get enough sleep.
This is because sleep is linked to chemical and electrical changes in the brain that can cause seizures overnight and disrupt sleep. Poor sleep can lead to a cycle that’s hard to stop.
If you’re often sleep-deprived, talk to your healthcare provider about medications that may help you get adequate rest.
Experts don’t yet understand why, but high stress levels can be a seizure trigger. Some research has suggested it’s because stress can lead to hyperventilating (rapid breathing), which alters brain activity.
It may also be due to the impact of stress hormones on the nervous system or because some areas of the brain involved in seizures are also part of the body’s response to stress.
While some stress is unavoidable, you may be able to better manage stress and lessen its effect on you. Some ways to manage stress include:
- Mindfulness practices, such as meditation
- Deep breathing exercises
- Learning to say no and setting boundaries
- Asking for help when you need it
- Stress therapy
Food can change your brain function, so a healthy diet may help you avoid seizures. However, research in this area is slim and inconsistent.
Very low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia) can cause seizures. This is most common when people with diabetes take too much insulin. Mild blood sugar dips don’t appear to be seizure triggers.
Low levels of certain vitamins and minerals may also be seizure triggers. These include:
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), mainly in babies
If you’re having trouble with seizure control, ask your healthcare provider if it’s beneficial to check for deficiencies. This can be done with a simple blood test.
Alcohol and Drug Use
Alcohol and recreational drugs may be seizure triggers in many people.
An occasional alcoholic beverage is unlikely to be a problem, but the risk may increase after three or more drinks. Binge drinking, and its following withdrawal, are tied to seizures.
It may also lead to the potentially fatal condition of status epilepticus, when seizures are especially long, or you have many close together without time for recovery.
Different recreational drugs have varying effects on epilepsy and seizures.
Any drug that impairs your memory or causes confusion may make you forget to take your epilepsy medication, which can trigger seizures.
For people with a condition called photosensitive epilepsy, flashing lights and other visual patterns can be a seizure trigger.
This is most common in children and becomes less of a problem as you get older. About 3% of people with epilepsy have a problem with flashing lights.
Catching an acute illness (e.g., cold, flu) or coming down with an infection may be a seizure trigger for some people. This can be from:
- The physical stress of being ill
- Vomiting up seizure medication
- Not sleeping well
You may want to take steps to prevent illness, such as frequent handwashing, keeping up with vaccines, avoiding sick people, and wearing a mask during cold and flu season.
If you menstruate, you may notice more seizures around your menstrual period. This is called catamenial epilepsy.
These seizures are most common around ovulation, about a week before your period starts. This is believed to be due to hormonal changes.
If this happens to you, talk to your healthcare provider about whether you should increase the dosage of your seizure medications at certain times in your cycle. However, don’t change your dosage without first talking to your healthcare provider.
Hormonal birth control pills can sometimes help control catamenial epilepsy.
Weather patterns and changes may be a seizure trigger in some people, but research has been inconsistent and inconclusive. Seizures may be more frequent:
- During unstable weather conditions
- In the winter, possibly due to lower temperatures
- During times of low atmospheric pressure and high relative humidity
Studies suggest weather is more likely to impact people with less-severe epilepsy.
Types of Seizures
Seizures are categorized as focal or generalized depending on how much of the brain they involve when they begin. Triggers are generally the same for both types.
A focal seizure (also called a partial seizure) starts in a small area of the brain and may spread to other areas and eventually including both sides of the brain.
Symptoms of a focal seizure can include:
- Twitches or other involuntary movements in one part of the body
- Jerking or convulsions of the entire body
- Decreased alertness
- Complete lack of awareness
When a focal seizure is over, you may have lingering symptoms of weakness.
In a generalized seizure, there’s widespread brain involvement from the beginning. Unlike in a focal seizure, in generalized seizures:
- Changes in consciousness and whole-body involuntary movements are present from the start.
- You’re less likely to have lingering symptoms when the seizure is over.
Some people have both focal and generalized seizures, while others may just have one type.
How to Identify Your Triggers
Part of learning to manage your condition is identifying seizure triggers to avoid them. You can start identifying triggers by keeping a seizure diary and making an entry after every seizure. Make a note of:
- The time of day a seizure occurred
- What you were doing
- Where you were
- How you felt
- Whether common triggers were present
Once you notice a potential trigger, make a note each time that trigger occurs, whether or not it results in a seizure.
For example, if you had three seizures after especially stressful days at work, make a note about each day. If you have six stressful days in the next month but only have a seizure on one of those days, stress may not be a trigger for you.
Once you’ve identified your triggers, you can work with your healthcare provider on strategies for avoiding them.
Seizures can have many triggers, including lack of sleep, certain medications, poor nutrition, stress, illness, the menstrual cycle, and changes in the weather. They can be focal or generalized.
A detailed seizure diary can help you identify your seizure triggers. Then you can work on avoiding them whenever possible.
Work with your healthcare provider in making positive changes to control your epilepsy. Don’t change medications or dosages without their input.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Are there any warning signs before a seizure?
Sometimes. Common seizure warning signs include:
- Anxiety or other mood changes
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty focusing
- Behavioral changes
- A feeling of butterflies in the stomach
- A sense of fear or impending doom
- Sounds/musical tones, tastes, or smells that are similar every time
- A sense of déjà vu or familiar surroundings becoming unfamiliar
- Distorted perceptions, such as feeling too small
Can you stop a seizure before it happens?
If you have warning signs that a seizure is about to happen, you may be able to take steps to stop it. Some people report that smelling a strong odor or squeezing muscles around a twitching area can keep it from developing.
What can you do to prevent seizures?
You can prevent seizures by:
- Taking your seizure medication as directed
- Consistently getting enough sleep
- Eating a healthy diet
- Avoiding or managing stress
- Avoiding alcohol and recreational drugs
- Avoiding illness
- Staying away from flashing lights
Source: verywellhealth.com, Adrienne Dellwo, Smita Patel MD