Epilepsy is a common neurological disorder, the hallmark of which is unprovoked seizures. It affects people of all ages, though it’s more common among young children and older people. Death from epilepsy is rare. Even the leading cause of death among people with uncontrolled epilepsy, sudden unexpected death in epilepsy, or SUDEP, kills just 1 in 1,000 people who have the disorder.

Scientists don’t know the exact cause of SUDEP. The victim is often found in bed, lying facedown. It may not be clear that the person has had a seizure — there are signs, or a witness, only about one-third of the time. But researchers have identified possible factors:

  • Breathing problems: During a seizure, a person may have pauses in breathing, which can become life-threatening if they go on too long. Or a convulsive seizure may lead to an obstructed airway, which leads to suffocation.
  • Heart rhythm: Rarely, a seizure may cause a dangerous heart rhythm or cardiac arrest.
  • Mixed causes: SUDEP may happen when breathing problems and an abnormal heart rhythm coincide, or from other, undiscovered causes.

One thing experts do know: SUDEP is most common in people who have uncontrolled epilepsy. People who have three or more convulsive seizures per year (what most of us picture when we think of a seizure) are 15 times more likely to die of SUDEP. Other things that can make it more likely are:

  • Missed doses of medication, or not taking medication as prescribed
  • Stopping or changing medication suddenly
  • Being between the ages of 20 and 40
  • Having an intellectual disability, with an IQ under 70

If you have epilepsy, controlling the number of seizures you have will cut your risk of SUDEP:

  • Always take your seizure medication as prescribed.
  • If you’re still having seizures, speak with your medical team.

If you’re aware of any seizure triggers, take care to avoid them.

SOURCE: WebMD Health News by D. Koenig Reviewed by B. Nazario, MD