Photosensitive Epilepsy

People with photosensitive epilepsy have seizures that are triggered by:

  • Flashing lights
  • Bold, contrasting visual patterns (such as stripes or checks)
  • Overexposure to video games

Anti-epileptic medicines are available to reduce the risk of a seizure. But people with photosensitive epilepsy should take steps to minimize their exposure to seizure triggers.

What Causes Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes recurrent seizures (more than two). A seizure is caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain.

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Epilepsy may be the result of:

  • Irregularity in the wiring of the brain
  • Imbalance of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain)
  • Combination of these factors

In photosensitive epilepsy, genetics also plays a role.

About one in 100 people in the U.S. have epilepsy. About 3% to 5% of those people have photosensitive epilepsy.

Children and adolescents ages 7 to 19 are more likely to have photosensitive epilepsy. Girls are affected by the condition more often than boys. But boys tend to have more seizures. That's probably because they spend more time playing video games, a common seizure trigger.

What Causes Seizures in People With Photosensitive Epilepsy?

Seizure triggers vary from person to person. But some common triggers are:

  • Flashing light
  • Bright, contrasting patterns such as white bars against a black background
  • Flashing white light followed by darkness
  • Stimulating images that take up your complete field of vision, such as being very close to a TV screen
  • Certain colors, such as red and blue

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Some specific examples of situations or events that can trigger seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy are:

  • Nightclub and theater lights, including strobe lights
  • TV screens and computer monitors
  • Flashing lights on police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, and safety alarms
  • Visual effects in movies, TV shows, and video games
  • Malfunctioning fluorescent lights and moving escalators
  • Light viewed through a fast-moving ceiling fan
  • Sunlight viewed through slanted blinds or stair railings
  • Sun shining through tree leaves or reflecting off water
  • Bold, striped wallpaper and fabric
  • Cameras with multiple flashes or many cameras flashing at the same time
  • Fireworks

Also, people with photosensitive epilepsy may be at increased risk for a seizure if they are:

  • Tired
  • Intoxicated
  • Play video games too long without a break

What Are the Symptoms of Photosensitive Epilepsy?

There are many different types of seizures. People with photosensitive epilepsy typically have what's called a "generalized tonic-clonic seizure." This is also known as a convulsive seizure.

A tonic-clonic seizure should last no more than five minutes. Symptoms include:

  • Loss of consciousness and patient falls to the ground
  • Muscles contract and body stiffens
  • Patient cries out
  • Breathing pattern changes
  • Patient bites tongue and inside of cheeks
  • Limbs jerk or twitch as muscles tighten and relax
  • Loss of bladder control

When the seizure ends, the muscles relax and the person slowly regains consciousness. After the seizure, the person may:

  • Be confused
  • Feel tired
  • Have memory loss for a short time
  • Have a headache
  • Feel sore

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Recovery time varies. Some people are able to return to normal activity soon after a seizure. Others may need to rest.

What to Do During a Seizure

It's not possible to stop a seizure once it has started. If you see a person having a seizure, take these steps:

  • Roll the person onto their side to prevent choking.
  • Cushion the head.
  • Loosen any tight clothing around the neck.
  • Keep the airway open. Grip the jaw gently and tilt the head back, if necessary.
  • Remove any objects that they may hit during the seizure.
  • Don't restrict the person's movement unless they are in danger.
  • Don't put anything into the person's mouth, including medicine or liquid. Doing so could cause choking.
  • Stay with the person until the seizure has passed or emergency personnel have arrived.

When to Call 911

Call 911 if:

  • You know the person is pregnant or has diabetes.
  • The seizure occurs in water.
  • The seizure lasts longer than five minutes.
  • The person doesn't regain consciousness after the seizure stops, another seizure starts before they regain consciousness, or they stop breathing.
  • Injury occurs as a result of the seizure.

Try to keep track of how long the seizure lasts and what symptoms occur so you can tell a doctor or emergency personnel.

How Is Photosensitive Epilepsy Treated?

There is no cure for photosensitive epilepsy. However, anti-epileptic medicines may reduce the frequency of seizures.

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People with photosensitive epilepsy can also reduce the likelihood of having a seizure by avoiding stimuli that could trigger a seizure. If you are inadvertently exposed to a trigger, cover one eye completely and turn your head away from the source of disturbance.

Tips for Living With Photosensitive Epilepsy

If you or a loved one has photosensitive epilepsy, it is important to do what you can to reduce your exposure to seizure triggers. Here are some tips that may help keep you seizure-free:

Follow a healthy lifestyle. Take simple steps such as:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Limit stress.
  • Avoid excess alcohol.
  • Don't play computer and video games when you are tired or for too long.

Avoid known sources of flashing lights. Places you might want to avoid include:

  • Nightclubs
  • Firework shows
  • Concerts

Be screen-smart. Some precautions to take include:

  • Watch TV and play video games in a well-lit room and at a safe distance from the screen (at least 8 feet from the TV and 2 feet from a computer monitor).
  • Use flicker-free monitors (LCD or flat screen).
  • Use a remote control instead of walking up to the TV to change the channel.
  • Reduce the brightness on screen monitors.
  • Adjust Internet settings to control moving images.
  • Limit time spent in front of the TV, computer, and on hand-held devices.

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Protect your eyes. When outside, wear polarized sunglasses to protect your eyes from bright light.

Be prepared. Know your triggers and take steps to avoid them as much as possible. Also, try to recall any unusual symptoms that may have preceded the seizure, such as:

  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Muscle twitching

If you notice these warning signs, cover one eye and turn your head from the stimuli immediately. If you are watching TV or playing video games, cover one eye and walk away.

If you or a loved one has a seizure, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can perform an EEG (electroencephalogram) to test for the condition. An EEG records brain activity and can detect abnormalities in the brain's electrical system. During the test, a flashing light test can show if you or your child is photosensitive, without triggering a seizure.

Living with photosensitive epilepsy can be unnerving and frustrating. You never know when you will have a seizure. But many people with photosensitive epilepsy live productive and relatively normal lives. Most people find that over time, they have fewer seizures.

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