According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 1.2% of people in the United States have active epilepsy. It affects around 3 million adults and 470,000 children in the country.

Epilepsy, also called seizure disorder, is a temporary change in typical brain activity. A person with epilepsy has a brain disorder that causes repeated seizures. Epilepsy is one of the most common conditions affecting the brain.

There are different types of seizures. The most recognizable, a motor seizure, can cause a person to fall and their muscles to twitch or jerk rapidly. The less obvious yet more common type, a nonmotor seizure, can present as a staring spell or confusion and may lead to a person wandering or temporarily losing the ability to talk.

Seizures can last a few seconds or minutes, depending on the type. Generalized seizures affect both sides of the brain. Focal seizures affect one brain area. However, they can spread to other areas.

This article explains how common epilepsy is and who it affects. It also lists possible causes and where to find support.

Learn what a seizure looks like here.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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In the U.S., an estimated 3.4 million people have epilepsy, including around 3 million adults and almost 470,000 children. This equates to roughly 6 in 1,000 people aged 0–17 years old.

National data sources from 2015 confirmed active epilepsy in 1.2% of the U.S. population, according to the CDC.

Doctors define active epilepsy as:

  • epilepsy a doctor has diagnosed that a person takes medication to control
  • epilepsy that has caused one or more seizures in the past year
  • epilepsy that fits both of the criteria above

Across states, active epilepsy prevalence estimates differ widely, from 5,900 cases in Wyoming to over 427,000 in California.

Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological conditions, affecting people of all ages, races, backgrounds, and geographical locations.

Each year, about 48 in 100,000 people will develop epilepsy. New diagnoses are highest in young children and older adults, with people over 65 having the highest incidence.

Worldwide, more males than females have epilepsy. Females with epilepsy may experience increased seizures associated with their menstrual cycle, which doctors call catamenial epilepsy.

There is a bidirectional relationship between epilepsy and depression. People with epilepsy are more likely to report symptoms of depression, and depression may make epilepsy more likely. Brain areas responsible for seizures also play a role in mood, which may help explain this relationship.

The incidence of epilepsy is higher in low and middle income countries for various reasons, including higher rates of central nervous system infections and traumatic brain injuries.

People are also more likely to develop epilepsy when they live or travel to areas where the risk of contracting an epilepsy-causing infection is higher.

Read Iva’s story about receiving an epilepsy diagnosis in adulthood.

Epilepsy may develop in the womb or later in life. Often, doctors cannot find a specific cause.

Doctors consider problems during pregnancy and childbirth preventable causes of epilepsy. These may include some congenital abnormalities or a lack of oxygen during birth. Estimates indicate that 25% of epilepsy cases are preventable.

Other known causes include the following:

People can self-manage epilepsy by developing their understanding of the condition, following a care plan from a medical team, and receiving support from the community.

It is essential for friends, family, and peers of people with the condition to receive education about epilepsy. This may include colleagues in the workplace or caretakers of children, such as babysitters and school teachers.

Seizure response training programs can teach people how to identify a seizure, what actions to take, how to keep someone safe, and when to call for emergency help. The CDC provides details about training programs for specific groups of people.

More epilepsy tools and resources are available from:

Learn what to do when a seizure happens here.

Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological conditions, affecting 1.2% of the U.S. population. It is more common among males than females. Infants and people over 65 have the highest incidence of new-onset epilepsy diagnoses.

Potential causes of epilepsy include problems during childbirth, exposure to certain bacteria and infections, experiencing a stroke, and traumatic brain injuries.

Living a full, healthy life is achievable for most people with epilepsy. Experts advise people to learn how to stay safe during seizures, follow medical advice about managing the condition, and seek support if necessary.