It can be quite frightening to witness someone have a seizure, but you need not panic if you’re prepared.

It’s important to know what to look for, what to do and that not all seizures are emergencies or have permanent negative effects.

One study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry found that many people have misconceptions about epilepsy and how to respond to seizures.

The study surveyed 1,000 people in the UK and found that only 43% knew that they should put something soft under the person’s head during a seizure. Additionally, only 36% knew that they should turn the person onto their side to prevent choking.

Madelein Barkhuizen, Executive Manager: Sales & Marketing at Bestmed Medical Scheme, says that National Epilepsy Week, which takes place from 21-27 June, is a time to raise awareness of epilepsy and how to deal with seizures, which can prevent dangerous situations and ensure that those with epilepsy receive the treatment they need.

“People lack a comprehensive understanding of epilepsy despite its relatively high prevalence. More worryingly, they do not know what to do in an epileptic seizure.”

Epilepsy is a central nervous system disorder which causes seizures. It affects 1 in every 100 people in South Africa and about 50 million people worldwide. About 75% of people with epilepsy have their first seizures before the age of 20.

Types of seizures

Seizures can be classified as either focal onset or generalized. When having a focal onset seizure, a person is typically awake and conscious yet unable to control a small movement or twitch. They could appear to lose focus and be unable to recall anything later. Those who experience this type of seizure are rarely aware of what is happening and may need professional medical help.

How do you know if someone is having a seizure?

There are a few things of which you should be aware, especially if you know someone who is epileptic.

Here are a few things to look out for:

The person – may be completely unresponsive and suddenly collapse;

becomes rigid for a few seconds due to clenched muscles;

starts to convulse, which can last from a few seconds to several minutes;

stops convulsing and becomes conscious;

may be disoriented or confused for a while.

How you can help:

Barkhuizen asserts that although seizure can’t be stopped, you can protect the person having it from harm. Someone having a generalized seizure usually has an increased chance of injury due to uncontrolled thrashing movements.

This is how you can help:

In the case of a minor seizure, guide the person away from potential danger, such as stairs.

Keep other people out of the way and clear all objects away from the person, even during a minor seizure.

In the instance of a generalized seizure, place the person on their side to keep their airway open.

Don’t try to stop the movements or hold the person down, as this could cause you injury.

Time the length of the seizure if possible.

Report the seizure to the person’s doctor, and if necessary, call an ambulance.

“So there is no reason to panic if someone has a seizure in your presence. Make sure that they can’t hurt themselves and call an ambulance, if necessary, but always report a seizure to the person’s doctor,’’ emphasized Barkhuizen.