What is status epilepticus?
A seizure involves abnormal electrical activity in the brain affecting both the mind and the body. Many problems can cause you to have a seizure. These include high fever, brain infections, abnormal sodium or blood sugar levels, or head injuries. If you have epilepsy, you may have seizures repeatedly.
A seizure that lasts longer than 5 minutes, or having more than 1 seizure within a 5 minutes period, without returning to a normal level of consciousness between episodes is called status epilepticus. This is a medical emergency that may lead to permanent brain damage or death.
Status epilepticus is very rare, most people with epilepsy will never have it. This condition is more common in young children and elderly adults.
This condition can occur as:
- Convulsive status epilepticus. Status epilepticus with convulsions may be more likely to lead to long-term injury. Convulsions may involve jerking motions, grunting sounds, drooling, and rapid eye movements.
- Nonconvulsive status epilepticus. People with this type may appear confused or look like they're daydreaming. They may be unable to speak and may be behaving in an irrational way.
What causes status epilepticus?
In children, the main cause of status epilepticus is an infection with a fever. In adults, the common causes include:
- Imbalance of substances in the blood, such as low blood sugar
- Drinking too much alcohol or having alcohol withdrawal after previous heavy alcohol use
Who is at risk for status epilepticus?
There are many risk factors for status epilepticus including:
- Poorly controlled epilepsy
- Low blood sugar
- Kidney failure
- Liver failure
- Encephalitis (swelling or inflammation of the brain)
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Genetic diseases such as Fragile X syndrome and Angelman syndrome
- Head injuries
What are the symptoms of status epilepticus?
These are possible symptoms of status epilepticus:
- Muscle spasms
- Unusual noises
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Clenched teeth
- Irregular breathing
- Unusual behavior
- Difficulty speaking
- A "daydreaming" look
How is status epilepticus diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will do a thorough physical exam and ask about your health history, any medicines you are taking, and if you’ve been using alcohol or other recreational drugs.
Your healthcare provider may also order an electroencephalogram. This involves placing painless electrodes onto your scalp to measure the brain's electrical activity.
You may need other tests to search for possible causes. These include a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to look for signs of infection. A CT scan or MRI may be needed to see problems in the brain.
How is status epilepticus treated?
The healthcare provider will want to end the seizure as quickly as possible and treat any underlying problems that are causing it. You may receive oxygen, have blood tests, and an intravenous (IV) line. You may be given glucose (sugar) if low blood sugar may be causing the seizure.
Healthcare providers may use anti-seizure drugs to treat the problem, including:
These drugs are given through an IV or an injection into a muscle.
What are the complications of status epilepticus?
Complications depend on the underlying cause and can range from no complications to death. If the underlying cause, such as poor epilepsy control, can be fixed, there may no complications. If the underlying cause is a stroke or brain injury, complications may include physical disability from the cause or even death.
Can status epilepticus be prevented?
If you have epilepsy, taking your medicines as directed may help you avoid status epilepticus. If you’ve had status epilepticus, you may need to begin taking seizure medicines or change medicines you’re already taking. Avoiding other causes of this condition, such as alcohol abuse or low blood sugar, may also help prevent it.
Key points about status epilepticus
- Status epilepticus has many causes. Some can be prevented such as low blood glucose or alcohol and drug abuse.
- Individuals who have epilepsy must take their medicine as directed.
- A seizure that lasts more than 5 minutes, or having more than 1 within a 5 minute period is an emergency that requires immediate medical care.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.