July 12, 2021

Swimming with epilepsy: everything you need to know

Lifestyle & Wellness

Swimming with epilepsy can be safe as long as you take precautions. Learn how to swim with epilepsy and what to do if you have seizures in water.

Whether you are doing lengths for exercise, or taking part in a competition, swimming is a fantastic sport with plenty of health benefits. In the past, swimming with epilepsy was not recommended because of the risk of drowning. However, medical professionals are increasingly supportive of people with epilepsy who want to swim - as long as they take certain precautions.

Here's everything that you need to know about swimming with epilepsy.

Man swimming with epilepsy in a pool

Is swimming with epilepsy allowed?

The International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE) has published guidelines which say that swimming is permitted for people with epilepsy at their neurologist’s discretion. This means that if you have epilepsy and would like to go swimming, you should ask your doctor first.

If your seizures are well controlled by medication or a medical device and it has been a long time since you had a seizure, your doctor may give you permission to go ahead. They will, however, expect you to follow certain safety precautions.

Learn more: Can you exercise with epilepsy?

Tips for safely swimming with epilepsy

If your epilepsy treatment team has said you are allowed to go swimming, the following tips can help you do it in the safest way possible:

  • Swim in a pool - not open water. Swimming in a lake or ocean is more dangerous because the temperature of the water cannot be controlled, and it may be harder for lifeguards to reach you
  • Tell the lifeguard at the pool that you have epilepsy and inform them of how they can help in case you have a seizure in the water
  • Swim on the outside lanes so that lifeguards can easily reach you if you have a seizure in the water
  • Visit the swimming pool at quieter times so that lifeguards can watch you more easily
  • Try not to get too tired as this can be a seizure trigger
  • Consider having a sports energy drink which will ensure there is enough sugar in your bloodstream - because low blood sugar and dehydration can also trigger seizures
  • Wear armbands if you are not so confident at swimming

Spotlight on swimmers with epilepsy

Having epilepsy does not always stop you from participating in this sport - as the following inspirational swimmers with epilepsy show:

  • Davis Tarwater from Knoxville, TN, is an Olympic swimmer who won gold in the 800-metre freestyle relay at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, UK. Davis first had seizures as a young child before growing out of them in adulthood.
  • Bryana Cielo from Morristown, NJ, swam competitively for her college before retiring and working as a swimming instructor for children. She first had seizures as a college student. 
  • Zach McGinnis, from Raleigh, NC, swam professionally for the US national team and holds the record for 100m backstroke at Virginia Tech. Zach had his first seizures as a young adult and works with Athletes Vs Epilepsy to promote awareness. 

What to do if you have seizures in the water

Having seizures in water is dangerous because of the risk of drowning - this is why swimmers with epilepsy should never go unsupervised. If you do have a seizure in water, the lifeguard should:

  • Gently support your head so that it is above water
  • Guide you to a shallower area in the swimming pool where they can stand and support you
  • Try not to restrain your movements
  • If possible, take you out of the water once the jerking has stopped and place you in the recovery position
  • Visit a medical facility who can check if you have swallowed water

Sport with epilepsy

Swimming is not the only sport you can do with epilepsy. There are many other ways of exercising which can also be practiced if you have seizures - read our blogs on tennis and golf to learn more.