Seizures occur due to a burst of abnormal electrical activity in the brain. While seizures can be unpredictable, some individuals have triggers that can induce a seizure. Being aware of potential triggers can help lessen the chance of having them.

Seizures refer to abnormal electrical discharges in the brain that can cause sudden, temporary changes in movement, behavior, sensation, or states of awareness. Seizure symptoms vary and may also appear differently, depending on the areas and amount of the brain involved.

The International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE) classifies seizures based on the type of onset or where they originate in the brain.

Seizures have many possible causes, which can include genetics, brain injury, or underlying conditions. Seizure triggers do not cause seizures but may provoke them in individuals who are susceptible.

Some common triggers include stress, tiredness, or missing medications. Being familiar with potential triggers may help prevent seizures from occurring.

In this article, we discuss some common seizure triggers, the difference between causes and triggers, and how to identify potential triggers.

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Some people with epilepsy, or people who have had recurrent seizures, may notice that they occur in patterns or happen in certain situations. These factors, or seizure triggers, may make seizures more likely to occur. However, some people who have epilepsy may not have any triggers. Some potential seizure triggers can include:

Missed medications

Regularly taking anti-epileptic drugs ensures a steady level of the medication in a person’s body. Missing a dose may increase a person’s risk of seizures and cause seizures to be more intense or occur more often.

Not taking them as prescribed may lead to status epilepticus, a prolonged seizure that health experts consider a medical emergency.

Sleep deprivation and tiredness

A 2020 study suggests that seizures and sleep have a bidirectional relationship, where seizures may cause lack of sleep, and lack of sleep may trigger seizures. Changes in the brain’s electrical and hormonal activity happen during normal sleep-wake cycles, which may contribute to seizures and alter their intensity and length.

Stress

Stress is a commonly reported trigger for seizures. However, the exact relationship between the two is not known. Everyone experiences stress differently, and stress comes in a variety of forms. A person could feel stressed due to major life events or a buildup of daily hassles.

Stress can take a physical toll on the body and may cause a lack of sleep, change in eating habits, and alcohol or substance use — all of which can trigger seizures.

Alcohol

Consuming alcohol in small amounts is unlikely to cause seizures. However, drinking an excessive amount of alcohol over a short period may trigger a seizure, even for people who do not have epilepsy.

Alcohol-related seizures are more common when the effects of alcohol on the body are wearing off. They can occur 6–72 hours after drinking. Consuming alcohol can also disrupt sleep or affect medications, which can increase the risk of a seizure.

Flashing lights

In individuals with photosensitive epilepsy, flashing lights or contrasting patterns can trigger a seizure. This type of epilepsy is rare, as roughly 3% of people living with epilepsy experience photosensitive seizures. Evidence also suggests that this type is more common among females and younger people.

Nutrition and deficiencies

If a person living with diabetes experiences severe hypoglycemia, which may occur from skipping meals, their extremely low blood sugar levels could trigger a seizure.

In other cases, vitamin and mineral deficiencies may also trigger seizures. While less common in adults, Vitamin B6 deficiency may trigger seizures in babies. Altered levels of minerals, such as calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium, can affect brain cell electrical activity and lead to seizures.

Illness and infection

Illness can also trigger seizures in some people. This may be due to the physical stress the illness puts on the body, lack of sleep, poor eating habits, certain medications, or dehydration.

Viral infection of the central nervous system commonly triggers seizures. In rare instances, common illnesses such as sinus infections or a cold can trigger seizures.

Menstruation

Some people may experience catamenial epilepsy, which refers to seizures that become worse or more frequent during certain times of the menstrual cycle. This is very rare, and evidence suggests this occurs due to changes in levels of the hormones progesterone and estrogen.

Weather

A 2017 study suggests that low pressure and high humidity conditions can trigger seizures. Although research into the effect of weather on seizure risk is not definitive.

A 2018 study notes that more seizures happen during winter. However, a survey by the Epilepsy Society found that very hot weather may cause breakthrough episodes in well-controlled seizures and may cause uncontrolled seizures to be more severe and intense. This indicates that extremes in temperature may cause changes in the body that trigger seizures.

Certain medications

Some over-the-counter medications may potentially trigger seizures. A 2016 study mentions that antidepressants, stimulants, tramadol, and isoniazid are medications commonly reported to trigger seizures in some people.

In 2 out of 3 people, the cause of epilepsy is unknown. However, it can result from genetic disorders or conditions affecting the brain, such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, infections, or other neurological diseases.

While a trigger can result in a seizure, seizure triggers are not the same as seizure causes. For example, a stressful situation can trigger a seizure, but the underlying cause of the seizure could be structural damage to the brain.

As seizures can be unpredictable, it can be difficult to determine why they occur, and some people may assume that triggers, such as tiredness, may be the cause. However, it is more likely that the individual was already predisposed, and the trigger simply induced the seizure in a susceptible person.

Seizures are often unpredictable and may occur spontaneously. While some people can identify triggers, many people will find their triggers to be nonspecific, such as stress or tiredness. However, other people may experience reflex seizures, which are seizures that occur consistently due to specific and identifiable stimuli or cognitive processes.

Potential stimuli for reflex seizures can be external, such as seeing flashing lights or touching hot water, or internal, such as feeling certain emotions or having certain thought processes. This is very rare.

It can be difficult and may take some time for an individual to identify their personal seizure triggers. A person can keep a seizure diary to note their activities or situations preceding a seizure. A pattern may emerge over time, revealing possible seizure triggers.

While attempting to identify possible triggers, a person should try to manage their condition and avoid or reduce exposure to potential triggers. Tips people can try include:

  • taking medication as their doctor prescribes
  • getting enough and regular sleep
  • lowering stress

Seizure triggers refer to stimuli that may induce a seizure in certain people. Triggers can vary among individuals, but common triggers include illness, tiredness, alcohol, and missing medication.

Triggers are different from causes. Underlying conditions often cause seizures, while triggers simply induce seizures in people who are already predisposed to them.

It can be difficult for people to identify their own personal triggers, but keeping a diary of potential triggers and trying to avoid certain stimuli may help prevent a seizure from occurring.