Your introduction to emergency seizure medication

  • April 11, 2024
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In this article
A woman discussing emergency seizure medication with a chemist

Emergency seizure medication can be an effective way of stopping severe seizures. In the United States, many people are prescribed this potentially life-saving treatment. One survey found that almost 90% of families who had a child with epilepsy, had this kind of medicine at home.

Although seizure emergency medication is common, it’s very important to be sure that you know how and when to use it. Studies have found that in many situations, caregivers don’t have enough training on how to use rescue medication correctly. 

Let’s learn more about emergency seizure medication.

When is a seizure a medical emergency?

To understand when you’d need to take emergency seizure medication, it’s first important to know what counts as an ‘emergency’. 

If someone has already been diagnosed with epilepsy, an emergency is when a person goes into ‘status epilepticus’. There are a few signs of status epilepticus: 

  • Seizures last five minutes or more: Most epileptic seizures last between a few seconds and up to two or three minutes, then stop by themselves. A seizure that lasts five minutes or longer is an emergency. 
  • Multiple seizures in a short time frame: If a person has several seizures in a short period of time (within five minutes, for example), or doesn’t fully recover between seizures, this is also status epilepticus. 

If this is the person’s first known seizure, then it always counts as an emergency, and you should seek medical help. 

Related: What is seizure first aid?

What is emergency seizure medication?

Seizure rescue medication is a kind of fast-acting medicine that is specifically designed to stop emergency seizures. 

Seizure emergency medication includes a variety of medicines which have a calming effect on the brain, and can stop a severe seizure. The most common kinds of emergency seizure medication are called benzodiazepines. They include medications such as diazepam, lorazepam, and midazolam.

Emergency seizure medication can be administered (given to a person) via several routes:

  • Intravenous (IV) drip or injection: The medicine is injected straight into the bloodstream. 
  • Rectally: A suppository or gel is put in the person’s backside.
  • Nasally: A medicine is sprayed into their nostrils
  • In the mouth: A suppository is placed between the person’s cheek and gum.
  • Orally: If the person having the seizure is conscious, they can swallow the medicine. 

IV drips and injections are usually only given by medical professionals in a hospital. But the other methods can be used for a seizure treatment emergency at home, in a residential unit, at school, or elsewhere. 

Learn more: Introduction to common rescue medications

Seizure emergencies and medical devices

Some people with epilepsy have medical devices implanted beneath their skin that help control seizures, or reduce their severity. If a person who’s having a seizure has an implant such as a neuromodulation device, with some you can pass a magnetic ‘wand’ over the device, which gives a pulse of electricity into the brain. That can help stop the seizure. 

Advantages and limitations of seizure emergency medication

Advantage of emergency seizure medication

Knowing you have emergency seizure medication at home has many benefits. It means that:

  • You can avoid unnecessary visits to the emergency room. 
  • You can stop severe seizures very fast. 
  • You have greater peace of mind. 

Limitations of emergency seizure medication

Although rescue medication is very helpful, it’s important to be aware of its limitations: 

  • Researchers have found that carers of people with epilepsy often receive little or no training on how to use the medicine, how much to give, and many don’t know what the medicine is called. 
  • Administering rescue medication correctly can be difficult for various reasons. People may feel uncomfortable about the idea of giving or receiving medication rectally. If someone has a cold (and a blocked nose), nasal sprays may be less effective. Placing a suppository inside the mouth of a person having a seizure can also be challenging. 
  • Legal or ethical concerns can also be an issue. Sometimes, there’s a lack of clarity about who is allowed to give this medication. 
  • Emergency seizure medication can have side effects - including making it difficult to breathe. Call 911 if the person appears to be having trouble breathing. 

The importance of a seizure action plan

If you have been prescribed emergency seizure medication, it’s important to have a seizure action plan in place. This explains when and how the medication should be used, and by whom. Your doctor should work with you to draw up the action plan, and you will want to share it with relevant people (your family, partner, or the people you live with, the school nurse, teachers, friends etc.). 

If you have any doubts about your emergency seizure medication or need help with your seizure action plan, speak with your doctor. Similarly, if you care for someone with epilepsy and feel you could benefit from more training, reach out to their treatment team for further advice.

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