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Are patients with epilepsy at increased risk of COVID-19 infection?


Chronic conditions such as lung disease, diabetes, and heart disease frequently receive attention for increasing the risk of complications for people who contract the coronavirus. Meanwhile, many members of the epilepsy community continue to wonder how the virus affects them. To address these concerns, the Epilepsy Foundation has released information that answers many common questions that people with epilepsy have about how COVID-19 can impact their health.

Perhaps the most pressing of these questions is: Does epilepsy increase the risk or severity of the coronavirus? According to the Epilepsy Foundation’s website, having epilepsy poses no additional risk for contracting COVID-19 or worsening the severity of the virus.

“The most common thing we’re hearing from patients in my practice is their proactive concern for being at increased risk for getting the coronavirus,” confirmed Selim Benbadis, MD, division director, epilepsy, EEG, and sleep medicine at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “Epilepsy patients are not at increased risk for complications from the coronavirus because epilepsy does not affect the immune system.”

In other words, people who have epilepsy face the same health challenges as people who do not have the condition and are otherwise healthy. For this reason, people who have epilepsy should exercise the same habits and preventative measures that healthy people would typically take, such as social distancing; avoiding contact with sick people; washing hands regularly; disinfecting surfaces regularly; and avoiding touching hands, eyes, nose and mouth.

However, as Dr. Benbadis explained, the high fever associated with coronavirus can trigger seizures. The increased risk is another reason people who have epilepsy should do their best to avoid getting sick.

Seizure medications do not increase COVID-19 risk but other conditions can

Similarly, epilepsy medications do not increase the risk of contracting the disease.

“The medications patients take to treat their epilepsy do not affect their immune system,” said Andrew Wilner, MD, associate professor of neurology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Memphis. There are a few exceptions – such as adrenocorticotropic hormone and everolimus – but doctors rarely use these drugs to treat epilepsy.

However, there are some situations and conditions that may pose a risk for people who contact the coronavirus. For instance, people who have problems swallowing their food and tend to suck food down their windpipes are more likely to develop pneumonia. Also, much like the general population, having diabetes, heart disease, or lung problems increase the chances of developing complications from the virus.

The best ways to avoid additional risks in epilepsy

Because of the pandemic, people who have epilepsy may have found that many of their doctors’ appointments have been canceled. Many clinics and medical practices have done this in order minimize exposing people who have acute illnesses to the virus. By focusing more on patients with acute conditions, doctors and nurses can better tend to patients with acute problems. As a result, practices have shifted to providing patient care using telemedicine as much as possible.

“Telemedicine services have surged, and I’ve been saying for years that telemedicine was going to grow,” Dr. Benbadis said. “It’s more convenient, and I believe that we’re going to see increased use of telemedicine long after the coronavirus pandemic is over.”

Aside from communicating with their doctors, the Epilepsy Foundation and Dr. Wilner stress that the best way for people who have epilepsy to stay healthy is by taking their medications on a regular basis exactly as prescribed.

“Taking mediation correctly and regularly is the best strategy for epilepsy patients to avoid unnecessary hospitalizations,” Dr. Wilner said. “If they have breakthrough seizures and get sent to the emergency room, then they risk being exposed to the virus in the ER.”

Also, because ERs are more crowded than usual, the Epilepsy Foundation encourages people who suspect they have the coronavirus to call their doctor’s office first. The goal is to try to make sure that people who have severe or life-threatening symptoms have access to treatment in the ER.

As with the general population, the first thing that epilepsy patients who suspect they have the coronavirus should do is call his or her doctor’s office. The health care professional taking the call will ask the patient a series of questions to determine whether the patient has COVID-19 or another condition or needs to seek emergency medical attention.

Fever, cough, and trouble breathing fall among the most commonly reported symptoms of the coronavirus. In many cases, health care providers recommend that people with mild versions of these symptoms stay at home.

Helpful tips

The Epilepsy Foundation offers tips on signs to look for when trying to figure out when a seizure requires an ER visit. These are:

  • Seizures in which awareness is lost for more than 5 minutes and no reversal medications are available.
  • Seizures with an unusual pattern or duration.
  • Seizures that cannot be treated safely at home or are not responding to rescue medication even after the medication has had enough time to work.
  • Seizures that occur after a severe blow to the head.

Additionally, while COVID-19 can cause death and sudden death in patients, the virus does not cause sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP). Because SUDEP is extremely rare, Dr. Benbadis said that there is no information to suggest that contracting the coronavirus will increase the risk,

Finally, no shortages of seizures medications have been reported as a result of COVID-19. However, there were shortages of generic levetiracetam immediate-release and levetiracetam extended-release medications prior to and during COVID-19. Experts expect the shortage to continue.

Overall, people who have epilepsy should be able to stay healthy – provided they exercise healthy and preventative habits.

“The majority of epilepsy patients should be reassured that if they continue their usual care, take their meds as directed, get adequate sleep, nutritious diet, they’re not at any increased risk compared to the general population,” said Dr. Wilner.

Dr. Benbadis reported the following disclosures: consultant for Bioserenity (DigiTrace), Brain Sentinel, Cavion, Ceribell, Eisai, Greenwich, LivaNova, Neuropace, SK biopharmaceuticals, Sunovion; speakers bureau for Eisai, Greenwich, LivaNova, Sunovion; Florida Medical Director of Stratus/Alliance; Member: Epilepsy Study Consortium; grant support from Cavion, LivaNova, Greenwich, SK biopharmaceuticals, Sunovion, Takeda, UCB, Xenon; royalties as an author or editor for Emedicine-Medscape-WebMD, UpToDate; editorial board for the (Epilepsy Foundation) controversy section, Emedicine-Medscape-WebMD, Epileptic Disorders, Epilepsy and Behavior, and Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics. Dr. Wilner reports Medical Advisory Board of Accordant Health Services, Greensboro, S.C., and book royalties: “The Locum Life: A Physician’s Guide to Locum Tenens,” Lulu Press.

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