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Monday, May 10, 1999 Published at 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK


Public 'ignorant' about epilepsy

Many people don't know how to do basic first aid to help epileptics

Most people do not know how to give basic first aid to a person suffering an epileptic fit, according to a survey.

Many said they would take action which experts said could be dangerous.

Around 400,000 people in the UK suffer from epilepsy, making it the country's most common brain disorder.

The condition results in recurrent fits or seizures which can lead to loss of consciousness and death.

The survey for the National Society for Epilepsy (NSE) found that 32% of people interviewed would put something in a person's mouth if they were suffering a fit.

The same number said they would try to restrain the person.

However, epilepsy experts say these are the worst things for a sufferer.

They say restraining a person having a fit can make them more violent and putting something in their mouth can be dangerous.

"People believe there is a threat sufferers will swallow their tongue. But, when they are fitting, their muscles go rigid," said a spokeswoman for the British Epilepsy Association (BEA).

She added that some people had put knives, pens and even their own fingers in sufferers' mouths.

This caused the sufferer's jaw muscles to contract, leading to cracked teeth or severed fingers.

Experts say the danger of swallowing the tongue comes after the fit has finished, and sufferers should be rolled onto their side to prevent this happening.

Unnecessary call-outs

The survey is being launched in advance of National Epilepsy Week, which begins on 15 May.

The NSE is publishing leaflets and posters to raise awareness about basic first aid and epilepsy.

It says the survey found that 78% of people said they would call an ambulance if they found a person fitting.

[ image: The NSE is launching a first aid awareness campaign]
The NSE is launching a first aid awareness campaign
But experts say this is not necessary if the seizure does not last more than five minutes.

Between September 1998 and March 1999, the London Ambulance Service reports that it received 8,000 unnecessary calls to help epilepsy sufferers.

The survey also found that people vastly underestimate the risk of developing epilepsy.

Forty-three per cent think the risk is only one in 500, when the condition affects about one in 100.

The NSE's leaflet points out that a soft object should be placed under the head of someone suffering a fit to avoid them doing damage to their head.

The person should be allowed room for their seizure and should not be moved.

The BEA is targeting primary schools for National Epilepsy Week.

It says 61,000 children in the UK have epilepsy and 70% attend mainstream primary schools.

It is issuing information packs and posters to schools to raise awareness about the condition.


Epilepsy is most common in teenagers, elderly people and the very young.

In elderly people, it is thought to be linked to strokes and hormonal changes.

Hormones may also explain teenagers' increased risk.

Accidents, head injuries and brain infections such as meningitis are also thought to be risk factors.

Epileptic fits can be triggered by a number of factors, including stress, fatigue and stimulants.

There are various drugs which can reduce the chance of fitting, but none can cure epilepsy.

In about 70% of cases, the drugs stop people having fits.

With medication, many people with the condition can lead relatively normal lives, but they may have to avoid jobs which involve heights and dangerous machinery.

For those who suffer seizures, the social stigma can be worse than the actual fits, say experts.

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