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Epilepsy Support Services Program

The Bureau of Family Health's Epilepsy Support Services Program (ESSP) provides funding to two grantees, the Epilepsy Foundation of Western/Central Pennsylvania and the Epilepsy Foundation of Eastern Pennsylvania, for educational activities promoting awareness and understanding of epilepsy/seizure disorders in school personnel, school nurses, students and parents, and epilepsy education for emergency response personnel. In addition, both grantees maintain a toll-free number to provide information and referral services to children, youth and adults diagnosed with epilepsy and/or related seizure disorders.                                                                                                   

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy, from the Greek word meaning "to seize", is a neurological disorder that affects more than 2.5 million Americans with 181,000 newly diagnosed each year. Somewhere between 1 and 2 percent of all Pennsylvanians are affected by the disorder. More people suffer from epilepsy than with 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, or neurological disorders can be involved. Sometimes, heredity also plays a role.
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, dangerous or have a "certain look". Most people with epilepsy lead normal and happy lives. They attend school, get jobs, get married and have children. Epilepsy does not limit a person's ability. People who have epilepsy should be treated like everyone else.

What is a seizure?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition caused by sudden, brief changes in the brain's electrical balance. When there are excess electrical charges in the brain, seizures occur. This can alter awareness, physical movements, consciousness or actions. Usually, a seizure lasts between a few seconds and a few minutes.

Seizure characteristics vary from person to person, ranging from generalized tonic-clonic (grand mal) which are accompanied by convulsions and loss of consciousness, to absence (petit mal), during which the person may appear to be daydreaming or switching off. Complex partial seizures are the most common. These seizures are characterized by a blank stare that lasts a few seconds, rapid eye blinking or chewing and other random repetitive movements. Seizures may sometimes be confused with other health conditions like heart attack, stroke 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, people with epilepsy can often control the number of seizures they have through the use of antiepileptic medications, special diets or surgery.

When does a seizure happen?

Most seizures occur without warning, although some people have a funny feeling or a weird smell or taste right before a seizure. This is called an aura. Others find that certain things may trigger a seizure; not getting enough sleep, stress, anxiety and hormonal changes. A seizure can happen anywhere, at any time.

What does a seizure look like?

The most commonly recognized type of seizure is a generalized tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizure. When people think of this type of seizure, they usually think of someone falling down unconscious and shaking. This type of seizure usually lasts for several minutes.

Another common type of seizure, especially in young children, is an absence (petit mal) seizure that is characterized by a blank stare, beginning and ending abruptly, lasting only a few seconds. This type of seizure may also be accompanied by rapid eye blinking or chewing movements of the mouth. While this type of seizure involves loss of awareness, the person having an absence seizure will quickly return to full awareness.

These are just two examples of the most common types of seizures. Other seizure types include simple partial, complex partial, atonic and myoclonic seizures.

What do I do if I am with someone who has a seizure?

If a friend has a seizure, he or she may fall down and begin to shake.

  • Stay calm and track 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 restrain or hold the person down.
  • 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:

1. Seek information and assistance.
Along with reputable websites, brochures and books, the ESSP grantees can be of assistance in better understanding epilepsy and seizure disorders. Locate the appropriate grantees from the information below and give them a call:

  • The Epilepsy Foundation of Western/Central PA serves 49 counties including the Greater Pittsburgh, Erie and Harrisburg areas. You may reach this Foundation by calling, toll-free, 1-800-361-5885 or by visiting     
  • The Epilepsy Foundation of Eastern PA serves 18 counties including the Greater Wilkes Barre/Scranton, Bethlehem/Allentown/Reading and Philadelphia areas. You may reach this Foundation by calling, toll-free, 1-800-887-7165 or by visiting     

2.  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.

3. 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 appropriate ESSP grantee to learn more about what may be available in your area.

Additional Resources

Contact Information

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