Even today, myths, misconceptions and discrimination can surround epilepsy, often causing more distress than the seizures themselves, and limiting people’s participation in society. Let’s debunk some of the more common myths.
Myth: Epilepsy is contagious
Fact: You cannot catch epilepsy from another person!
Myth: Epilepsy is a form of mental illness
Fact: Epilepsy is not a mental illness. It is an umbrella term covering different types of seizure disorders. It is a functional, physical, neurological condition, affecting approximately 37,000 people in Ireland.
Myth: All people with epilepsy must avoid flashing or flickering lights
Fact: Only about 3-5% of people with epilepsy are photosensitive. As a result, the vast majority of people with epilepsy do not need to avoid flashing lights. Even most of those who are photosensitive can still watch television and use computers without significant difficulty as only particular patterns actually cause seizures to occur.
Myth: All seizures involve falling to the ground and convulsions
Fact: A convulsive (or Tonic-Clonic seizure) in which the person becomes rigid and shakes is just one of the many different types of seizures. Seizures involve different parts of the brain and depending on which part of the brain is involved, there will be different physical symptoms. For example, a seizure may also lead a person to experience blank stares, rapid blinking or intense emotional and/or physical sensations (e.g. fear, joy, unpleasant sights or smells). It is also not true that all seizures involve a loss of consciousness. If a person has a Simple Partial seizure, they will know what is happening and are aware that they are having a seizure.
Myth: You should put something in a person’s mouth during a seizure
Fact: This myth stems from a mistaken belief that during a seizure, people can swallow their tongue or suffocate. In fact, it’s physically impossible to swallow your tongue and you should never force something into the mouth of someone having a seizure or try to hold their tongue. You could damage teeth, puncture gums, or even break someone’s jaw. You also risk being bitten if you attempt this.
Myth: You can stop a seizure by holding the person down
Fact: Do not attempt to stop a seizure by restraining the person experiencing a seizure. Instead, protect the person from injury by removing any harmful objects that may be nearby. Cushion the person’s head and gently place the person in the recovery position when the seizure has finished. Stay with the person until recovery is complete.
Myth: All seizures require immediate medical attention
Fact: Seeing someone have a seizure can be very frightening and instinctively many people call an ambulance. However this is not always necessary. An uncomplicated convulsive seizure in someone who has epilepsy is not a medical emergency, even though it may look like one. It stops naturally after a few minutes without ill effects. The average person is able to continue about his/her business after a rest period, and may need only limited (or no) assistance in resuming their normal activities.
Myth: People with epilepsy can’t drive a car
Fact: In Ireland a person who is seizure free for one year can legally drive a car.
Myth: Epilepsy will affect a person’s ability to take part in sports or other leisure activities
Fact: A lot will depend on the degree of seizure control and the type of sport activity involved. Everyone’s epilepsy is different
All myths and facts in this post appear on the Epilepsy Ireland website.