Seizure Disorders and Family Life

Can people with epilepsy marry? Can people with epilepsy have a normal sex life ...a normal family life? Should they have children? What are the chances their children will develop a seizure disorder?

This page begins to answer questions of this kind. We say "begins" because questions of this type can be answered here only in general terms. Each individual and each situation is different. Your doctor or other qualified health professional should be consulted when the time comes to discuss these matters as they pertain to you and your family.

Q: Can people with seizure disorder marry?

A: At one time, not too long ago, there were laws in some states that prohibited people with epilepsy from marrying. These legal restrictions were based on mistaken beliefs about the influence of heredity on the development of epilepsy. Today, with greater understanding of the causes of epilepsy, these laws have been repealed, and there is no legal barrier to prevent people with a seizure disorder from marrying.

However, it is true that heredity plays a part in some forms of epilepsy, and it is common sense that a person with a seizure disorder be honest and open about his or her condition.

Q: Can people with a seizure disorder have normal sex lives?

A: Almost always. For one thing, epilepsy does not generally affect a person's ability to have sexual intercourse. Of course, people with epilepsy may have sexual problems, but they are generally the same difficulties that anyone else faces and can usually be treated in the same way.

Most people with well-controlled epilepsy can and do lead normal sex lives. On occasion, however, a person's medication may be connected with a sexual problem. If this may be a possibility, please consult your doctor.

Q: Should people with epilepsy have children?

A: Each person's situation is different, and only a general answer can be given. In broad terms, there is only a small chance that the children will have a seizure disorder, unless both parents come from families with strong histories of seizure disorders.

The influence of heredity in seizure disorders is still not completely understood. Some seizure disorders are unquestionably passed on from parent to child. More frequently, what is inherited is not the seizure disorder, but a susceptibility to seizures. This susceptibility may be uncovered by disease, injury, physical and emotional stress, or other factors at any time during the person's life.

Genetic scientists estimate that the chances of anyone in the general population developing a seizure disorder are about 1 in 100. Looking at the figures another way, the chances are 99 out of 100 that a child born to parents in the general population will not have epilepsy. If, however, one parent has a seizure disorder, the chances that the child will not have epilepsy are still very good-about 95 out of 100, if the parent has partial or generalized seizures. It's interesting that children of an epileptic mother are more likely to develop a problem than if the father has epilepsy.* Why? No one knows.

* Hauser WA, Hesdorffer DC. Epilepsy: Frequency, Causes and Consequences. New York, NY: Demos; 1990: 93-118.

Q: Suppose the first child has epilepsy. What are the chances that another child will develop it?

A: The chances that a child will develop a seizure disorder are the same regardless of previous children having epilepsy. Inheritance is like tossing a coin. Even if ten heads in a row come up, the chance for heads or tails is exactly the same the next time the coin is flipped.

Q: Can people with epilepsy have normal family lives?

A: When seizures are well-controlled, the parent with epilepsy can provide the same guidance and support to his or her family as any other parent.

However, special provisions should be made when caring for an infant. Incorporating basic safety techniques into the parental routine can minimize the possibility of danger to the infant in the event of seizure.** For instance, instead of carrying a baby for long distances, it is recommended that one always use a stroller. Unless another adult is present, bathing a baby should be confined to sponge baths. In general, one's awareness and common sense will be the guide to avoiding the dangers of a fall.

There will, of course, come a time when the child can understand what a seizure is; it is important that the parents then explain the problem honestly and in simple terms. If this presents a difficulty, it is often helpful to involve the parent's physician in the family discussion. Children must know what to expect. Experience has shown that the best approach is an open and frank disclosure of the parent's problem.

** Santilli N. The patient's perspective on epilepsy. In: Lesser RP, ed. Diagnosis and Management of Seizure Disorders. New York, NY: Demos Publications; 1991:135-150.

Q: What is the general outlook for people with epilepsy who want to have a family?

A: For most people, it's good. In fact, most children born to women with epilepsy are free of birth defects and never develop a seizure disorder. There is some degree of genetic risk involved in epilepsy, however, and it is important that people with epilepsy consult their physicians for guidance based on their particular situation.

For more information, call the Epilepsy Foundation, Information Service, at 1-800-EFA-1000.

This information was prepared as a service to people with epilepsy by Ciba-Geigy Corporation, Pharmaceuticals Division.