9 Ways to Help Someone Having a Seizure

by Jennifer Rainey Marquez Health Writer

Mr. Rogers always said to “look for the helpers,” but not everyone knows how to help when someone is having a seizure. For one thing, it can be difficult to recognize what’s happening. “Most people only think about big convulsive seizures, because that’s what you see on TV,” says Jessica Fesler, M.D., a neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Epilepsy Center. IRL, seizures may be less obvious; the person may simply act confused or stare off into space. And while a seizure itself isn’t always dangerous, it’s easy for someone to get hurt. Here are the most effective ways to lend a hand.

Help Them to a Safe Place

During a convulsive seizure, a person may fall to the ground and it can be difficult to move them. “But even a non-convulsive seizure can turn into a convulsive one,” says Dr. Fesler. If the person is still standing, gently ease them into a seated position. Even better than sitting in a chair, she notes, is to sit or lay down on the floor, away from hard or sharp objects that could cause injuries. If someone is having a convulsive seizure near a major source of danger, like a busy road, do your best to get them to safety.

Check the Time

Many seizure treatments are time-dependent, says Dr. Fesler. “The vast majority of seizures will stop on their own within a couple of minutes.” Keep an eye on the clock and note the person’s symptoms. Call 911 if the seizure lasts five minutes or longer, you know they have never had a seizure before, they have one seizure after another, or if you don’t know the person or their medical history. Prolonged seizures require emergency medical intervention because they could lead to permanent brain damage.

Clear the Decks

It’s important to move sharp or solid objects out of the way in case the person falls or hits themselves. “Injuring yourself during a seizure is often a bigger danger than the seizure itself,” says George Nune, M.D., assistant professor of clinical neurology at University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and medical director of the Keck Hospital epilepsy monitoring unit. If they’re holding something, try to get it out of their hand. If they’re wearing glasses, remove them. If they’re near a glass table, push it away.

Don’t Restrain Them or Try to Wake Them

“Many people believe that you should hold a person down during a seizure to protect them, but the opposite is true,” says Dr. Fesler. Restraining someone who can’t control their movements can cause unintentional injury to them or you. “You run the risk of dislocating a shoulder or something.” Similarly, don’t try to “wake up” the person by shaking them or splashing their face with water, which can cause choking. Remember, most seizures will be over in a minute or two, and the sufferer will wake up on their own.

Don’t Put Anything in Their Mouth

You may have heard that you should put something in the person’s mouth to prevent them from swallowing their tongue, but again, this is a legend that hurts more than it helps. Forcing someone’s mouth open and inserting anything could cause choking, cut their gums, harm their jaw, or chip their teeth. Keep in mind, says Dr. Nune, “while people can and sometimes do bite their tongues during a seizure, it’s impossible to swallow your own tongue.”

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Turn Them to One Side

A person may vomit during or after a seizure; rolling them to one side can reduce the risk of choking and also help them breathe. However, it may be hard to do this if they are stiff or shaking violently. In that case, wait until the seizure has subsided, and then gently turn them. If someone does stop breathing, do not attempt to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until the seizure is over. People will often resume breathing on their own.

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Protect Their Head

During a convulsive seizure, a person may bang their head against the floor, which can cause bleeding or another injury. To cushion the blow and reduce the risk of harm, place something soft and flat—like a folded blanket or sweater—underneath their head. If there’s nothing around, simply cup your hands around the back of their head.

Loosen Anything That’s Tight Around Their Neck

A scarf, necktie, or necklace can get wound around a person’s throat, making it hard to breathe. As best you can, carefully remove or loosen any clothing or accessories around their neck, as well as any items that could cover their nose or mouth as a result of convulsions. If the person does get hurt or choked during a seizure, call 911.

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Reassure Them as They Wake Up

People often emerge from a seizure feeling dazed, disoriented, or agitated. “Your brain is kind of exhausted, and it can take a while to come back to yourself,” says Dr. Nune. The sufferer may act groggy or ask the same questions over and over. Stay with her and comfort her as she wakes up. “If they don’t come around after 20 or 30 minutes, or their confusion seems to get worse rather than better, they should be evaluated,” says Dr. Fesler.

Jennifer Rainey Marquez
Meet Our Writer
Jennifer Rainey Marquez

Jennifer Rainey Marquez is a longtime health and science writer based in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, O: The Oprah Magazine, Parents, Good Housekeeping, Parade, and many other outlets. You can follow her at @jenrrain.