Research Update – Dr. Elizabeth Donner

While most people with epilepsy live long and healthy lives, there are some situations where seizures can be life-threatening, such as when they happen in or near water. The frequency of drowning among people living with epilepsy (PWE) is nearly ten times greater than the general population. In fact, PWE have a 15-19 times greater risk of drowning. However, there are many precautions one can take to reduce their risk of drowning. In a recently published study, Dr. Elizabeth Donner and colleagues examined a set of data from PWE in Ontario who drowned and described the characteristics surrounding their deaths. The authors also make recommendations to help prevent drowning.

Researchers reviewed data from autopsies conducted by the Ontario Forensic Pathology Services between 2014 and 2016. In particular, they screened for cases of drowning in people with a history of seizures. The frequency of drowning in PWE was calculated using government estimates of PWE and the Ontario population.

Overall, during the 3-year study period, they found that a total of 25 PWE drowned. 56% were male, 3 were obese, 8 were overweight, and the average age was 36 years old. There was evidence that 6 people had experienced a seizure prior to drowning based on video footage, eyewitness accounts, and evidence of a tongue bite at autopsy. They found that approximately one-third were living with psychiatric disorders in addition to epilepsy, including schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety. In addition, drowning deaths in PWE most often occurred in the bathtub (11 in total), and more females than males were found in bathtub-related drownings.

This study confirms a high number of drowning deaths in PWE in Ontario over 3 years. Given these data, there are significant risks associated with bathtub use. Information and counseling on the increased risks of drowning should be provided to people with epilepsy. Additionally, it is recommended that people with epilepsy take the following precautions:

  • Take prescribed anti-seizure medication on time and be aware of the potential side effects
  • Swim in supervised areas or swim with a buddy
  • Wear a lifejacket on boats or while fishing
  • Consider showering instead of bathing, if possible, and ensure that the shower drain cannot be blocked
This study aims to raise awareness of the risks associated with drowning and provides specific prevention strategies for people with epilepsy and their caregivers.

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