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Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy

Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy

Sudden unexpected death occurs in a small number of people who have epilepsy. People most at risk are those with severe frequent seizures. Preventing seizures as much as possible with treatment may reduce the risk of sudden death. A support group may be helpful if you are bereaved by an unexpected death of a loved one.

SUDEP is a term used when a person with epilepsy suddenly dies and the reason for the death is not known. For example, it is not due to injury or to drowning following or during a seizure and it is not due to a prolonged and severe seizure (status epilepticus).

The cause is not known. If a post-mortem examination is done on a person who dies of SUDEP, no abnormality is found to account for the death. There are various theories as to why a person with epilepsy may die suddenly. One theory is that a seizure may affect a part of the brain that controls heart or breathing function and so the heart and/or breathing just stop during a seizure.

The risk is small for most people with epilepsy. It is estimated to cause about 500 deaths per year in the UK. This sounds a lot; however, when you compare it to the number of people with epilepsy, it is quite rare. Of those who die from SUDEP, it is most common in people who have generalised tonic-clonic seizures, especially in young adults. The most important risk factors seem to be poor seizure control and seizures occurring during sleep.

Note: epilepsy is common. About 1 person in 30 in the UK develops epilepsy at some stage. Most people with epilepsy have a normal lifespan and do not die of SUDEP.

  • In people with severe epilepsy (frequent and severe tonic-clonic seizures), it is estimated that about 1 in 200 dies of SUDEP each year.
  • In people with mild idiopathic epilepsy (epilepsy of unknown cause), it is estimated that about 1 in 1,000 dies of SUDEP each year.
  • In people who are in remission, the risk of SUDEP seems to be very low (negligible). The term in remission means that you have had seizures in the past but have none or very few at present. This is either because of treatment or because the epilepsy has settled down.

If you have epilepsy, it may be possible to reduce the small risk of dying from sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) by:

  • Preventing seizures as much as possible. This is usually by medication. In some people, surgery is used to prevent seizures when medication has not been successful in preventing seizures. However, in some cases it is not possible to stop seizures fully. See separate leaflet called Treatments for Epilepsy for details.
  • Being aware of the potential risk of night-time seizures. Some people only have seizures at night when asleep (or have them more often at night). As the risk of SUDEP is still present even for night-time seizures, if possible, you should try to prevent these seizures as much as you can. This may mean a review of medication. But again, in some people it is not possible to prevent seizures fully.

The sudden death of a loved one for any reason (such as due to SUDEP) is very upsetting and traumatic. If you have lost someone close due to this condition, it may be best to talk it through with your GP or with the GP of the affected person. It is a tragic event where usually nothing could have been done to prevent it from happening. Some people find that it helps to get information and help from a support group - details of some are given below.

Further help & information

SUDEP Action

Tel: 01235 772850

Epilepsy Action

New Anstey House, Gate Way Drive, Yeadon, Leeds, LS19 7XY

Tel: (Helpline) 0808 800 5050, (Admin) 0113 210 8800,

Epilepsy Scotland

48 Govan Road, Glasgow, G51 1JL

Tel: (Helpline) 0808 800 2200, (Admin) 0141 427 4911

Epilepsy Society

Chesham Lane, Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire, SL9 0RJ

Tel: (Helpline) 01494 601400, (General) 01494 601300

Epilepsy Wales

Bradbury House, 23 Salisbury Road, Wrexham, LL13 7AS

Tel: (Helpline) 0800 228 9016, (Admin) 01978 312325

Epilepsy Research UK

PO Box 3004, London, W4 4XT

Tel: 020 8747 5024

Young Epilepsy

St Piers Lane, Lingfield, Surrey, RH7 6PW

Tel: (Helpline) 01342 831342, (Admin) 01342 832243

Cruse Bereavement Care

PO Box 800, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 1RG

Tel: (Helpline) 0808 808 1677, (Admin) 020 8939 9530

The Compassionate Friends

14 New King Street, Deptford, London, SE8 3HS

Tel: (Helpline) 0845 123 2304, (Northern Ireland Helpline) 0288 7788 016, (National Office) 0845 120 3785

Further reading & references

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Tim Kenny
Current Version:
Dr Colin Tidy
Peer Reviewer:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Document ID:
4765 (v41)
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