What to do when someone has a seizure

Frankly, seizures can look pretty scary. Convulsions, unconsciousness, confusion, and even screaming are all symptoms of a grand mal seizure. So let’s make them a little less scary by understanding what’s going on and how to help.

In this post, we’ll talk about what’s happening in the brain and body during a seizure, possible causes, and what you can do if someone starts seizing.

What is a seizure?

Seizures are abrupt, uncontrolled electrical disruptions in the brain. They can alter someone’s behavior, movements, sensations, and responsiveness.

While seizures vary in type and intensity, we’re going to focus on the tonic-clonic seizure. Also known as a grand mal, this seizure causes loss of consciousness, muscle spasms, and twitching or jerking. In seizure terminology, “tonic” refers to muscle stiffening, and “clonic” indicates jerking motions.

What causes a grand mal seizure?

Several underlying health conditions can contribute to a tonic-clonic seizure. Any of the following issues may cause abnormal brain electrical activity:

  • Epilepsy
  • Stroke
  • Brain tumor
  • Head trauma
  • Encephalitis
  • Meningitis
  • Metabolic imbalances
  • Alcohol or drug withdrawal
  • Certain genetic and neurological disorders

What should you do if someone is seizing?

Seeing someone have a seizure is frightening, especially because there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Try to remember that most seizures resolve on their own within a few minutes. So keep a careful watch on the person and do the following:

When to call 911

  • It’s the first time the person has had a seizure
  • The person is seriously injured before the seizure or because of it
  • The seizure lasts more than five minutes (most last only one to three minutes)
  • The seizure happens in water
  • The person does not regain full consciousness or has several seizures without regaining consciousness
  • You notice the person is struggling to breathe
  • The person is pregnant or has a health condition such as heart disease

Keeping the person safe

  • Make sure the environment is safe (e.g., get the person to the floor if possible, remove any sharp objects from nearby, etc.)
  • Keep other people at a distance to ensure the scene is safe for everyone
  • Put something underneath the seizing person’s head for cushioning
  • Loosen any tight clothing and remove glasses
  • Roll the person onto their left side to help with breathing and in case they vomit
  • Note the start and stop time of the seizure 
  • Stay with them until the seizure stops and/or help arrives

What not to do

  • Try not to panic; remember that seizures are common, they usually resolve themselves, and your job is to keep this person safe
  • Don’t hold the person down or attempt to stop their movements
  • Don’t put anything in the person’s mouth, especially your fingers

When the seizure is over

  • Be prepared for the person to wake up confused, dazed, and possibly upset
  • Speak to the person in a calm tone and explain what happened if they don’t remember
  • You may need to get the person gauze or tissue to stop bleeding; many people bite their tongues during seizures
  • Encourage the person to stay lying down or seated for a while until they feel strong enough to stand up

Want to learn more about how to respond in situations like this?

Our adult and child First Aid classes will teach you how to prepare, assess, and respond in a variety of medical emergencies. Check out all our programs and contact us today to book your group’s training.