What is a seizure?

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WASHINGTON (AP) – A seizure is like a little storm in the brain’s electrical system, and the resulting symptoms can range from a few minutes’ blank stare to a full-scale collapse and loss of consciousness.

It’s not all that rare for a usually healthy person to have a seizure, although they’re far more common during childhood than adulthood.

When one happens, doctors do a battery of tests to make sure there’s no sinister explanation. A test that measures brain waves, called an EEG, can confirm a seizure by detecting a telltale spike. A brain scan called an MRI can detect a tumor, stroke or congenital abnormality.

Fevers frequently trigger seizures, and sometimes are a sign of an infection like meningitis. Very low blood sugar and dehydration also can trigger a seizure. Simple emergency room tests can rule all that out.

When there’s no apparent underlying cause, doctors label it a benign seizure.

Two-thirds of people who have one seizure never have another.

But the definition of an epileptic is someone who has had more than one such seizure, said Dr. Marc Schlosberg, a neurologist at Washington Hospital Center. After two seizures, the likelihood of another at some point is greater than 60 percent, he said.

Whether and when to try medications to prevent another seizure is an individual decision, based largely on how often the person has seizures and of what type.

Epilepsy is merely a term for a seizure disorder, but it is a loaded term because it makes people think of lots of seizures, cautioned Dr. Edward Mkrdichian, a neurosurgeon at the Chicago Institute of Neurosurgery and Neuroresearch.

Still, Mkrdichian said anyone who has had two otherwise unexplained seizures is at high risk for a third.

While some people need a few days to feel fully recovered after a large seizure, most report feeling fine again in 10 or 15 minutes, Schlosberg said.

The big issue is ability to drive. State laws vary widely on how long someone must be seizure-free to be behind the wheel, regardless of the seizure’s cause.

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