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Epilepsy Program

The Bureau of Family Health's Epilepsy Program promotes awareness and understanding of epilepsy through educational events to schools and communities and via a toll-free number to provide information and referral services to children, youth and young adults diagnosed with epilepsy.  Funding for the Epilepsy Association of Western and Central Pennsylvania makes the Epilepsy Program services available in two-thirds of the state, and funding for the Epilepsy Foundation of Eastern Pennsylvania makes the Program services available in one-third of the state.                                                                                                 

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy, from the Greek word meaning "to seize", is a neurological disorder that affects more than 2.5 million Americans; 181,000 people are newly diagnosed each year.  One to two percent of all Pennsylvanians are affected by epilepsy.  More people suffer from epilepsy than from Parkinson's disease, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy combined.  Epilepsy is the third most common neurological disorder after stroke and Alzheimer's disease.  About 70 percent of the time, the cause of epilepsy is not known.  Head trauma, infections, neurological disorders, or heredity can be involved.

Epilepsy is not a disease, a form of mental illness, or a sign of low intelligence.  It is not contagious.  Epilepsy is a disorder of the nervous system.  It can affect anyone, at any age, at any time.  In fact, it is estimated that one in 10 people will have a seizure sometime during his or her lifetime.  People who have epilepsy are not developmentally delayed, mentally ill, nor dangerous.  Most people with epilepsy lead normal and happy lives.  They attend school, get jobs, get married and have children. 

What are seizures?

Seizures are the result of sudden, brief changes in the brain's electrical balance.  When there are excess electrical charges in the brain, seizures occur.  Seizures can alter awareness, physical movements, consciousness or actions.  They typically last a few seconds to a few minutes.

Seizure characteristics vary from person to person.  Some seizures are accompanied by convulsions and loss of consciousness.  During other seizures people appear to be daydreaming or “switching off.”  The most common seizures are characterized by blank stares that lasts a few seconds, rapid eye blinking, chewing movements, and other random repetitive movements.  Seizures may be confused with heart attacks, strokes, or lack of coordination.

Often seizures first develop during the pre-school and elementary school years.  While epilepsy is generally a chronic and/or lifelong condition, many people with epilepsy reduce the number of seizures they experience through the use of medications, special diets, or surgery.

When do seizures happen?

Most seizures occur without warning, although some people have funny feelings or weird smells right before a seizure.  These strange sensations are called auras.  People find that certain things sometimes trigger their seizures, such as stress, anxiety, hormonal changes, or not getting enough sleep.  Seizures can happen anywhere, anytime.

What do I do if I witness someone having a seizure?

Since people may fall down and begin to shake while having seizures...

  • stay calm and keep track of the time;
  • move anything out of the way that might injure the person;
  • gently roll the person onto his or her side;
  • put something soft under his or her head - not your hand;
  • loosen anything tight around his or her neck;
  • do NOT put anything into the person's mouth;
  • do NOT try to hold the person down or stop them from shaking; and
  • check for epilepsy or seizure disorder identification.
If the seizure lasts longer than five minutes, get help!  Remember, if you see someone having a seizure, you can help.  You can't do anything to stop the seizure, but you may be able to prevent and/or minimize injury that might occur as a result of the seizure.

If you have epilepsy, you are not alone!

Epilepsy might be something you have, but it is not who you are. There are many things you and your loved ones can do to cope with the condition.

Seek information and assistance

The Epilepsy Program can be of assistance in learning more about epilepsy and related services.  

In central and western Pennsylvania call the Epilepsy Association of Western and Central Pennsylvania at 800-361-5885.
In eastern Pennsylvania call the Epilepsy Foundation of Eastern Pennsylvania at 215-629-5003.

Communicate with your physician. 

Keeping good notes and records about your seizure activity will give your physician a better understanding about how epilepsy affects you and what treatments might be most effective.  Your family and friends may be able to provide you with a good description of what your seizures are like, how long they last, and what recovery from seizure activity is like for you.  This type of information, along with a summary of how you are reacting to medications, is valuable information for your treating physician.

Educate others

Request epilepsy education and first aid training for the people closest to you - your family members, friends, school personnel, and co-workers.  Contact the Epilepsy Program to learn what is available in your area.  See the section called “Seek information and assistance” above.

Additional Resources

Contact Information

Bureau of Family Health
Division of Community Systems Development & Outreach
Epilepsy Program
Health and Welfare Building
625 Forster St.
7th Floor East
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 17120-0701
Phone: 717-772-2763 or 1-877-PA-HEALTH (1-877-724-3258)