Common Seizure Triggers for Epilepsy—and What to Do About Them

“Triggers are individual, but there are some that are universal.”

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After a diagnosis of epilepsy, you may worry about when the next seizure will appear, and what your body will do during the seizure. Over time, you’ll start to learn you own seizure triggers—the environmental and lifestyle factors that can cause the dysfunction in your brain that leads to a seizure’s abnormal electrical activity.

“Triggers are individual, but there are some that are universal,” says Padmaja Kandula, MD, neurologist at Weill Cornell Medicine. Here are some of the most common triggers for seizures in people with epilepsy, according to Dr. Kandula:

  • Sleep deprivation: This means not simply getting enough sleep, but also getting good-quality sleep. “Getting up multiple times in the night affects the deeper stages of sleep, which the brain does not like,” says Dr. Kandula. Here are daily habits of people who always sleep well.

  • Alcohol: A night of heavy drinking tends to block you from achieving the deeper stages of sleep that help you feel more rested, which can predispose you to a seizure the next day.

  • Stimulants and caffeine: Excessive amounts of coffee and energy drinks should be avoided for people with epilepsy.

  • Some medications: Certain antibiotics, antidepressants, and even herbal medications like Ginkgo may trigger a seizure for some people.

  • Flashing lights: Lights that flash or move at certain frequencies can bother some people with epilepsy—especially children—and trigger a seizure. This is known as a photosensitive response.

How to Deal with Your Triggers

In some cases, certain triggers can easily be avoided. For example, a doctor who knows you have epilepsy can prescribe an antidepressant that is not known to trigger seizures, and those who are photosensitive can avoid strobe lights and flashing lights.

“If you can’t avoid the situation, one thing you can do is cover at least one eye so you’re not getting all of the visual input from the flashing lights or the flashing colors,” says Dr. Kandula.

Despite these specific triggers, one of the most helpful ways to deal with seizure triggers is to simply live an overall healthy lifestyle. Many of the common seizure triggers—like excessive alcohol or sleep deprivation—go against healthy lifestyle recommendations whether you have epilepsy or not.

“For some patients, it’s actually kind of a wake-up call,” says Dr. Kandula. “If [the diagnosis] happens early on, people really can not only manage their [epilepsy] but really manage lifestyle and prevent other chronic problems.”

Learn more about healthy habits that can help fend off chronic illnesses here.