Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: November 2021 | Last updated: August 2023
Epilepsy is a disease in which nerve cells in the brain do not properly work. When the nerve cells do not work, it can cause a seizure. Different types of symptoms result when nerves in the brain misfire.
Some of the more common symptoms affect the eyes. Someone having a seizure may stare, blink, hold their eyes shut, move their eyes to one side, or look up. They may seem to be daydreaming.1
What causes staring/blinking in epilepsy?
Eye symptoms like staring blankly are generally caused by absence seizures. This is a type of generalized seizure. Generalized seizures are caused by nerve cells misfiring on both sides of the brain. Absence seizures are more common in childhood.2
People with absence seizures lose consciousness for a few seconds, then stop what they are doing to stare. This normally lasts for 5 to 10 seconds, but it can be longer. These seizures can happen several times a day. In severe cases, this may happen hundreds of times a day. After the seizure, the person returns to normal.3
Usually, the person loses awareness for a short time only during absence seizures. The old name for these seizures is "petit mal."2
When someone starts by staring and then begins blinking, fluttering their eyelids, smacking their lips, or moving their hands, they are having an atypical absence seizure. Atypical absence seizures tend to last longer.2
Other things to know
It is common for people to mistake absence seizures for daydreaming or not paying attention. Because the person is not aware during the seizure, they will not respond if someone speaks to them. Right after the seizure, they may seem confused and not know what just happened.2
Some people have this type of seizure for months or years before being diagnosed.2
How are these seizures diagnosed?
Absence seizures are diagnosed using a test called an EEG (electroencephalogram). An EEG checks electrical activity in the brain. Absence seizures tend to have a very specific EEG pattern.
It is also important to keep a seizure journal. Loved ones should make a video of seizures when they occur. This record of when seizures happen, what seems to trigger them, and what they look like will help your doctor create your treatment plan.
How are these seizures treated?
Absence seizures are treated in a variety of ways. There are 3 goals in treating any epilepsy: controlling seizures, avoiding side effects, and improving quality of life. Treatments may include:3
- Anti-seizure drugs
- Lifestyle changes
- Diet and nutrition
- Supportive devices such as a smartwatch
- Epilepsy service dogs
Doctors believe 7 out of 10 people with epilepsy can become seizure-free with treatment. Some people can eventually stop taking anti-seizure medicines eventually.4
Staring or blinking is just 1 possible symptom of epilepsy. Other potential signs of epilepsy include: