Aura and Epilepsy

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: November 2021

Epilepsy is a brain disease that causes seizures. Different people have different types of seizures. Some people have what is called an aura.

An aura in epilepsy is a change in feelings or sensations that appear just before the rest of a seizure takes place. But an aura can also occur by itself. Not everyone with epilepsy has an aura before their seizures begin. But for those who do, aura can be a warning to get somewhere safe.1

An aura is actually a type of focal seizure. Studies show up to 6 out of 10 people with generalized seizures have auras.2,3

Symptoms of aura

Aura symptoms depend on which part of the brain is affected by a seizure. The person may feel emotional, sensory, or physical changes, including:1

  • Smells, sounds, or tastes
  • Vision differences
  • Strange feelings
  • Fear, panic, or racing thoughts
  • A lightheaded feeling or dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea or a rising feeling in the stomach
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Fidgeting
  • Memories

These sensations last from a few seconds to an hour. Sometimes an aura occurs by itself. Other times it occurs before another seizure takes place.4

What an aura feels like

People who have auras describe the sensations in many ways, including:2,4,5

  • Noticing an unusual taste or smell
  • Suddenly feeling intense joy, doom, or fear
  • Feeling like a wave is moving through their head
  • Noticing numbness or tingling anywhere in the body
  • Feeling like an arm or leg is bigger or smaller than it is
  • Feeling separated from their body
  • Seeing swirling colored lights, flashes, or blind spots
  • Feeling like you are on a rollercoaster
  • Hallucinations (usually hearing or smelling something that is not there)

Some people report a sense of déjà vu or jamais vu. Déjà vu is a feeling that a person, place, or thing is familiar but you have never experienced it before. Jamais vu is the opposite. This is a feeling that a person, place, or thing is new or unfamiliar when it is not.

What causes aura in epilepsy

Auras are caused by abnormal activity in the temporal lobe. The temporal lobe is located in the lower part of the brain close to the ears. Changes in vision are caused by a seizure in the back of the brain (the occipital lobe), which controls vision.

A seizure in the temporal lobe may cause déjà vu, hallucinations, or repeated small movements. These are called automatisms and include fidgeting and lip-smacking. The temporal lobe has many functions, such as controlling language, memories, and emotions.5

Benefits of aura

Having an aura can be helpful. It gives a warning sign that another seizure might be coming. This allows you to prepare and get to safety. You can turn off the stove, get off a ladder, or lay down on a soft surface.

Auras may also help your doctor better diagnose your seizures. Specific symptoms may tell the doctor where in the brain the seizures are taking place.

Aura allows people using a vagus nerve stimulator to potentially stop the seizure by giving their device an extra jolt.5

Aura is just 1 possible symptom of epilepsy. Others include:

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