Epilepsy Causes and Risk Factors

Many abnormalities of the nervous system can result in seizure activity. Seizures can also occur in the normal nervous system when its metabolic balance is disturbed. The cause (etiology) of epilepsy may be not clearly known (idiopathic) or related to a particular disease state. About 35 percent of all cases of epilepsy have no clearly definable cause.

Epilepsy and Genetic Factors

Some persons may have a genetic predisposition to the development of seizures. There is also an increased incidence of epilepsy in relatives of those with a seizure disorder.

Epilepsy and Head Injury

Seizures may develop at or around the time of injury or years after (usually not more than 2 years later).

Epilepsy and Stroke

Seizures can occur at the time of a stroke or many years later. They may occur with strokes that result in lack of blood flow to the brain, but are more common with those that involve bleeding (hemorrhage) into or around the brain.

Epilepsy and Metabolic Disturbances

Disorders that change levels of various metabolic substances in the body sometimes result in seizures.

  • Altered levels of sodium, calcium, or magnesium (electrolyte imbalance)
  • Kidney failure with increased urea in the blood (uremia) or changes that occur with kidney dialysis
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) or elevated blood sugar (hyperglycemia)
  • Lowered oxygen level in the brain (hypoxia)
  • Severe liver disease (hepatic failure) and elevation of associated toxins

Epilepsy and Toxins

Overdose of and abrupt withdrawal from some prescription drugs can result in seizure activity. Substances that may induce seizures in some people include the following:

  • Antidepressants (e.g., bupropion [Wellbutrin])
  • Antipsychotic medications (e.g., chlorpromazine, haloperidol, clozapine)
  • Aminophylline (bronchodilator; Phyllocontin, Truphylline)
  • High doses of penicillin
  • Lithium (Eskalith)
  • Pain relievers (e.g., tramadol [Ultram])
  • Tricyclic antidepressants (Elavil, Limbitrol, Tofranil)

Chronic illicit drug use also may cause seizures, particularly cocaine, heroine, amphetamines, and PCP. Alcohol withdrawal can produce seizures, which usually occur 12-24 hours after the last drink but can occur up to 48 hours or more after binge drinking. Poisoning from carbon monoxide, lead, and other heavy metals also may cause seizures.

Epilepsy and Infection

Infections of the nervous system may result in seizure activity. These include infection of the covering of the brain and the spinal fluid (meningitis), infection of the brain (encephalitis), and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and related infections.

Epilepsy and Tumors

Cancerous (malignant) and benign brain tumors may be associated with seizures. The location of the lesion influences the risk.

Epilepsy and Degenerative Disorders

Several neurodegenerative disorders produce seizure activity, including the following:

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Creutzfeld-Jakob disease
  • Neurofibromatosis
  • Phenylketonuria (PKU)
  • Tuberous sclerosis
  • Sturge-Weber syndrome
  • Tay-Sachs disease

Epilepsy and Cerebral Palsy

Epilepsy is often a symptom of cerebral palsy, which results from lack of oxygen, infection, or trauma during birth or infancy.

Febrile Seizures

Febrile seizures occur in small children and are caused by high fever. From birth up to the age of 5, about 2 to 4 percent of children in the United States experience a febrile seizure. Approximately one-third of these children may experience another febrile seizure, but only a few develop epilepsy.

Seizure Triggers

Triggers do not cause seizures but provoke the onset of a seizure or cause a seizure in a patient whose epilepsy is under control. Alcohol consumption, hormonal changes of the menstrual cycle, sleep deprivation, flickering or flashing light, and stress can trigger a seizure in a susceptible person.

Publication Review By: Gordon R. Kelley, M.D.


Last Modified: 14 Sep 2015