In photosensitive epilepsy, visual stimuli can trigger seizures. These stimuli include flashing or flickering lights and sometimes certain patterns or shapes. Factors such as stress and tiredness can make seizures more likely.

Photosensitive epilepsy is a relatively rare condition, affecting about 3% of people with epilepsy.

This article looks at what photosensitive epilepsy is and explains its symptoms, triggers, and treatment. It also offers some lifestyle tips for people living with the condition.

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The symptoms of photosensitive epilepsy are similar to those of other types of epilepsy. However, the triggers of symptoms are visual stimuli, such as flashing lights or contrasting patterns.

A person with photosensitive epilepsy can have any type of seizure, but generalized tonic-clonic seizures are the most common.

During a tonic-clonic seizure, a person’s muscles stiffen, and those in the arms, legs, and face jerk rapidly. The person may:

  • cry out or groan before losing consciousness and falling to the floor
  • bite their tongue, leading to blood appearing in their saliva
  • look gray or blue in the face if the seizure lasts too long
  • experience a loss of bowel and bladder control

A person usually regains consciousness after 1–3 minutes.

After a seizure, a person may feel irritable, confused, or depressed.

People should call 911 if a seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes or if a person has two or more seizures in a row without regaining consciousness in between. This is called status epilepticus, and it is a neurological emergency.

People with photosensitive epilepsy can have different triggers. The most common are:

  • Flashing or flickering lights: This is the most common trigger. People may experience this due to various sources, such as strobe lights or flickering TV screens.
  • Patterns and shapes: Certain geometric patterns or contrasting colors close together can also trigger seizures.
  • Rapid scene changes or movements: Quick cuts or fast-moving scenes or visuals in movies or video games can be a trigger.

What might make a seizure more likely?

Several factors can increase the likelihood of a seizure. These include

  • consuming alcohol
  • being dehydrated or missing meals
  • taking illegal drugs
  • experiencing exhaustion or sleep deprivation
  • being ill or stressed
  • missing a dose of epilepsy medication
  • experiencing hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle
  • overheating
  • eating an unhealthy diet

Read more about seizure triggers.

Changes in the brain’s electrical activity cause seizures in photosensitive epilepsy.

In people who do not have epilepsy, brain neurons communicate with each other using carefully regulated electrical signals.

In epilepsy, this pattern of neuronal activity becomes disturbed, leading to unusual behavior and sensations, as well as seizures.

Treatment options for photosensitive epilepsy include:

Antiepileptic drugs

Medications are the primary treatment for managing seizures in epilepsy, including photosensitive epilepsy.

The choice of antiepileptic drug (AED) will depend on the type of seizures a person has, their age, whether they have other health conditions, and the potential side effects.

Common AEDs include:

Avoiding triggers

For those with photosensitive epilepsy, avoiding exposure to flashing or flickering lights is crucial. This can include the following strategies:

  • modifying screen time
  • using screens with reduced glare and flicker
  • avoiding situations with strobe lighting

Wearing special glasses

Glasses with blue-tinted lenses or other filters can help reduce the likelihood of seizures due to flashing or flickering lights.

Vagus nerve stimulation

To perform vagus nerve stimulation, a healthcare professional implants a small device under the skin of the chest. This device sends regular, mild pulses of electrical energy to the brain via the vagus nerve. This can help reduce the frequency and intensity of seizures.

Responsive neurostimulation

This involves implanting a device in the skull that monitors brain activity and delivers a small amount of electrical stimulation to disrupt seizure activity.

Learn more about responsive neurostimulation.

Helping someone with a seizure involves several key steps to ensure their safety and well-being. These include:

  • Staying calm: Remaining calm can help others stay calm, too.
  • Ensuring safety: It is important to move any dangerous or sharp objects away from the person having a seizure to prevent injury. If they are somewhere where they might fall or get hurt, such as near stairs or a road, a person can try to guide them to a safer location.
  • Cushioning the head: Placing something soft under the person’s head, such as a folded jacket or a pillow, can protect them from experiencing a head injury.
  • Timing the seizure: If possible, it is best to keep an eye on the time. If the seizure lasts more than 5 minutes, or if another seizure starts soon after the first, people need to seek emergency medical help.
  • Rolling the person onto their side: Gently rolling them onto their side if they are not already in that position helps keep the airway clear and allows any fluid or vomit to drain away. This can help prevent choking.

Learn more about first aid for seizures.

When someone experiences their first seizure, it is critical to seek medical attention immediately. A thorough evaluation is necessary to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend calling 911 in the following circumstances:

  • the person has never had a seizure before
  • the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes
  • the person has another seizure soon after the first without waking in between
  • they have difficulty waking or breathing properly afterward
  • they are in water when they have a seizure
  • they get injured during the seizure
  • they have diabetes or another health condition
  • they are pregnant

If a person with photosensitive epilepsy experiences new symptoms or side effects from medications, they will need to discuss these with a doctor.

Living with photosensitive epilepsy involves managing environmental and lifestyle factors to reduce the likelihood of seizures.

Some tips include:

  • avoiding known triggers, such as exposure to flashing or flickering light
  • wearing glasses with special lenses, such as polarized or blue-tinted lenses
  • taking regular screen breaks
  • using screens with antiglare settings
  • adjusting screen brightness
  • increasing distance from screens
  • managing stress as much as possible
  • maintaining a healthy lifestyle

Covering one eye can reduce the risk of a seizure in situations where exposure to a trigger is unavoidable.

Many people with photosensitive epilepsy respond well to treatment, which typically includes medication and lifestyle modifications. With management, people can often significantly reduce or completely manage their seizures.

Generally, the long-term outlook for people with managed photosensitive epilepsy is positive. However, ongoing seizures can have an impact on a person’s overall health and daily functioning.

Epilepsy resources

Visit our dedicated hub for more research-backed information and in-depth resources on epilepsy and seizures.

Was this helpful?

In photosensitive epilepsy, visual stimuli, such as flashing lights, can trigger seizures.

Video games, strobe lighting, and flickering screens are common triggers. Factors such as tiredness, stress, and dehydration can make having a seizure more likely.

Managing photosensitive epilepsy can involve avoiding triggers, taking medication as a doctor prescribes, getting plenty of sleep, avoiding stress as much as possible, and taking regular screen breaks.