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What's the Difference Between a Seizure and Epilepsy?

What's the Difference Between a Seizure and Epilepsy?

By Tawnya M. Constantino, MD

Dec 12, 2017

Updated Oct 25, 2023

5 min read

The Difference Between a Seizure and Epilepsy

Most of us don’t expect to experience a seizure. But roughly three million people in the United States are at risk — because they have epilepsy. In fact, 1 in 26 people in the US will develop epilepsy during their lifetime.

What is a seizure?

A seizure happens when there's an abnormal electrical discharge in your brain. We all have a 10 percent chance of suffering from a seizure, and that risk increases if you've suffered a stroke or brain injury. But a single seizure doesn't mean you have epilepsy.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is defined as having chronic seizures, although anyone can have an episode in their lifetime. Symptoms can vary, including temporary confusion, loss of consciousness or awareness, and psychic symptoms.

How common is epilepsy?

More than 150,000 new cases of epilepsy are diagnosed each year in the U.S. Epilepsy can happen to anyone, young or old. It takes two or more seizure episodes to diagnose the condition.

How does epilepsy impact daily life?

A decade ago, Taraca Kamun, 30, had a full scholarship at the University of Utah and was hoping to become a neurosurgeon. Unfortunately, that dream wouldn’t come true after she developed epilepsy. "After 3 months of living in Utah, I had my first seizure,” she recalls.

But that hasn’t stopped her from being active and accomplishing other goals. She’s remodeled at least two homes. She graduated from the University of Utah in the top of her class. After 12 years of living with epilepsy, she’s learned to look at life differently.

Most people who have epilepsy hold down jobs and raise their families. It's part of who they are but it doesn't define them. Also, most seizures can be controlled through medication.

"I've learned how to do sheet rock, mud, built a shed. I graduated at the top of my class,” said Kamun.

The fact is that a lot of people have epilepsy. They don't go around and have it painted on their forehead. They raise families, hold down jobs. It's part of who they are but doesn't define them. Most seizures can be controlled through medication.

What to do if someone is having a seizure

If someone you know experiences a seizure, it’s important to protect their head with a coat or blanket. Don’t put anything in their mouth or try to restrain them; that could cause injury or choking. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if a person is having a seizure, call 911 if:

  • The person has never had a seizure before
  • The person has difficulty breathing or waking after the seizure
  • The seizure lasts longer than five minutes
  • The person has another seizure soon after the first one
  • The person is hurt during the seizure
  • The seizure happens in water
  • The person has a health condition like diabetes, heart disease, or is pregnant