Epilepsy: Symptoms, Types, and Stages of Seizure Disorders

Would you recognize the symptoms of a seizure? Learn about epilepsy symptoms, types, and syndromes, as well as when to see a doctor.

By Ability Central

15 March, 2024

Viewed from behind, a male Black doctor and an older Black man sit in a clean hospital office to review the man's brain scan results

While up to 10% of people will have at least one seizure in their lifetime, around 50 million people around the world live with epilepsy or a seizure disorder. 

The sudden nature of seizures makes epilepsy one of the most recognizable neurological diseases in the world. However, not everyone knows how to recognize a seizure in progress—and even fewer know the difference between epilepsy’s various syndromes.

In this article, we answer questions like:

  • What are the symptoms of epilepsy?
  • What are the symptoms of a seizure?
  • What are the stages of a seizure?
  • What’s the difference between an epilepsy type and an epilepsy syndrome?
  • What are the different types of epilepsy?
  • What are the most common epilepsy syndromes? 
  • When should I see a doctor about epilepsy concerns? 
  • Where can I get more information about epilepsy?


What are the symptoms of epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, or ancestry. Some people are born with epilepsy syndromes, while others develop seizures later in life. 

Epilepsy comes in four types and a wide variety of syndromes, but all forms of epilepsy involve at least two seizures at least 24 hours apart. Seizures are the defining feature of epilepsy, but many people with seizure disorders report other symptoms, like: 

  • Fatigue
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Social difficulties
  • Mental health difficulties

Not everyone who has a seizure has epilepsy. As many as 1 in 10 people will have a seizure at some point in their life, but people with epilepsy have a permanent difference in their brains that makes them prone to seizures. 


What are the symptoms of a seizure?

A seizure is a period of intense, sudden electrical activity in the brain that typically lasts between 30 seconds and two minutes. Many seizures have no apparent cause or trigger, while others occur as a reflex or response to an event. 

Someone having a seizure shows symptoms like:

  • Confusion.
  • Staring into space.
  • Loss of awareness or consciousness.
  • Cognitive changes, like déjà vu. 
  • Emotional changes, like fear or anxiety. 
  • Jerking or twitching movements that can’t be controlled, usually in the arms, legs, and/or face.

The two types of seizures—focal and generalized—can be broken down into subtypes based on the parts of the brain and body they affect. To learn more about different types of seizure and what happens during a seizure, see What Is a Seizure? Symptoms, Types, and When To Call an Ambulance. 


What’s the difference between an epilepsy type and an epilepsy syndrome?

Epilepsy as a disease can come with a wide variety of diagnoses. However, there are only four distinct “types” of epilepsy. When someone receives a unique diagnosis (like “benign rolandic epilepsy” or “Dravet syndrome”), the additional name refers to the epilepsy “syndrome.” A syndrome is a set of symptoms and other medical factors that appear together. 

To diagnose a specific epilepsy syndrome, doctors consider:

  • The age when your seizures started.
  • Your EEG results.
  • The type(s) of seizures you have.
  • Your family history or other genetic factors. 
  • How your body has reacted to anti-epileptic medications.
  • Your common seizure triggers. 
  • The outlook of your condition.
  • Other symptoms, like cognitive, physical, or mental health impacts.

Knowing which epilepsy syndrome someone has can help doctors tailor their testing, care, and treatment. Similarly, an official diagnosis can help someone with an epilepsy syndrome know what to expect from life with their condition. 


What are the different types of epilepsy? 

There are four main types of epilepsy: 

  • Focal epilepsy involves seizures that begin on one side of the brain but generally have milder symptoms (focal seizures).
  • Generalized epilepsy is when seizures begin on both sides of the brain and may cause symptoms like a loss of consciousness or hallucinations (generalized seizures).
  • Combined generalized and focal epilepsy involves both seizure types. 
  • Unknown if generalized or focal epilepsy. People with an “unknown” epilepsy type do not have consistent enough symptoms or enough medical information to classify a seizure type. This is especially common in people who have only recently developed seizures. 


What are the most common epilepsy syndromes? 

Epilepsy syndromes, which combine seizure types with related symptoms, affect people in different ways. 

Some of the most common epilepsy syndromes include:

  • Dravet syndrome, a severe seizure disorder that mostly affects children. People with Dravet syndrome have many kinds of seizures and often develop symptoms like delayed language or development, learning difficulties, and mental health conditions.
  • Gelastic epilepsy, a rare focal seizure disorder that causes uncontrolled laughing or giggling.
  • Landau-Kleffner syndrome (LKS), seizures accompanied by loss of language and speech skills.
  • Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a severe childhood epilepsy that can cause permanent brain damage.
  • Doose syndrome (also called myocolonic astatic epilepsy or MAE), which starts in childhood and features drop seizures, absence seizures, tonic-clonic seizures, and myoclonic seizures.
  • West syndrome (also called infantile spasms), a type of epilepsy seen in babies that affects sleep, mood, development, and appetite.
  • Childhood absence epilepsy, in which children abruptly freeze up and stare into space. Many children don’t notice they’re having these seizures, and the condition can lead to difficulties with attention, concentration, and memory. 
  • Childhood idiopathic occipital epilepsy, which often involves hallucinations, headaches, eye pain, and nausea or vomiting. 
  • Benign rolandic epilepsy (BRE), also known as benign epilepsy with centrotemporal spikes (BECTS). Children with BRE maintain full awareness during seizures, which usually last two minutes or less and are more likely at night. BRE primarily affects the face and tongue. Many children with BRE stop having seizures by the age of 13.
  • Juvenile myoclonic epilepsy (JME). Usually developing in adolescence, JME involves myoclonic jerks or seizures that typically occur within an hour or two of waking up.  


When should I see a doctor about epilepsy concerns?

If you, a loved one, or your child has recently had a seizure, seek medical attention as soon as possible. Make an appointment with your family doctor or pediatrician to discuss symptoms, family history, testing, and treatment. You may need a referral to a neurologist or other specialist for further testing. 

Call an ambulance or seek immediate medical attention if the person having a seizure:

  • Shows seizure symptoms for longer than five minutes.
  • Is pregnant.
  • Doesn’t regain consciousness or stops breathing. 
  • Immediately has another seizure.
  • Has a fever. 
  • Has diabetes.
  • Injured themselves during the seizure.
  • Had the seizure despite taking anti-seizure medication. 


Where can I get more information about epilepsy?

To learn more about seizures and epilepsy syndromes, see:

To learn more about medical conditions, diseases, and events that can cause seizures, see: 

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