One of the first things you should do if you see someone having a seizure is to put something in their mouth to prevent them from swallowing their tongue, right?

Wrong. This well-meaning action is actually a myth that could hurt the person you’re trying to help.

It’s impossible for a person to swallow their tongue. While a person loses a lot of muscle control during a seizure, there is tissue in your mouth beneath your tongue that holds it in place.

While a person’s tongue doesn’t move much during a seizure, there is a risk that they might bite their tongue. If anything is in their mouth while having a seizure, they could become seriously injured.

It’s important not to try to put anything in a person’s mouth while they’re having a seizure to avoid harming them or making them choke on the object.

Seizures are relatively common. About 1 in 10 people will have one seizure during their lifetime, according to the Epilepsy Foundation of Michigan. There are several types of seizures, each with their own symptoms, though generally these symptoms overlap.

Most seizures tend to be generalized tonic-clonic seizures (also called grand mal seizures). During these seizures, a person may experience:

  • stiff or rigid muscles
  • rapid and random muscle movements
  • loss of consciousness
  • injuries to the cheek or tongue due to biting that may come with loss of control of the body
  • locked or stiff jaw
  • loss of bladder and bowel control
  • face that turns blue
  • strange changes in taste, emotions, vision, and smell, usually before the seizure begins
  • hallucinations
  • tingling sensations
  • disorientation
  • crying out

Knowing what to do if you see someone having a seizure can come in handy. If you see someone having a seizure, here’s what to do.

As the seizure happens

  • Help the person down to a safe position if they begin to seize while standing.
  • Turn the person gently on one side to prevent aspiration (breathing foreign objects into airways).
  • Move any possibly dangerous objects — anything hard or sharp — out of the area to help prevent injury.
  • Place something such as a folded towel or jacket under the person’s head to keep it stable and safe.
  • Remove the person’s eyeglasses if they’re wearing them.
  • Loosen tie, collar, or jewelry around the person’s neck because these may make it hard for someone to breathe.
  • Start timing the seizure. It’s important to call 911 or the local emergency number if the seizure lasts longer than five minutes. Look at the person’s neck or wrist to see if they’re wearing an emergency tag. Seek emergency help if indicated on their tag.
  • Stay with the person until their seizure is over and they’re awake. Once they’re awake, it may take several minutes before they’re able to communicate again.

After the seizure

  • When the person has stopped seizing for several minutes, help them sit in a safe place. When they’re able to speak to you and understand you, explain to them calmly that they’ve had a seizure.
  • Stay calm. Comfort the person and others around you who have witnessed the seizure.
  • Ask if you can call a taxi or another person to help the person who had a seizure to get home safely.

Never do these things when you find a person having a seizure

  • Don’t try to hold or restrain the person.
  • Don’t place anything in the person’s mouth.
  • Don’t try to give CPR or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. A person will usually start breathing on their own after a seizure.
  • Don’t offer the person food or water until they’re completely alert.

Should I call 911?

Most people who have seizures don’t require emergency medical care. To determine if calling 911 or an emergency number is necessary, ask yourself these questions. If the answer to one or more of these questions is “yes,” call for help:

  • Is this the person’s first seizure?
  • Has this person had difficulty breathing or waking after the seizure?
  • Has the seizure lasted more than five minutes?
  • Has this person had a second seizure after the first one ended?
  • Has the person been hurt during the seizure?
  • Has the seizure happened in water?
  • Does this person have a chronic health condition like diabetes or heart disease, or are they pregnant?
  • Is this person wearing an emergency medical tag that requires me to call for help in the case of a seizure?

While many people have been taught that a person having a seizure might swallow their tongue, that’s simply not true.

Remember never to put anything in the mouth of a person having a seizure because it could injure or choke them.

Knowing what really happens during a seizure and how to react could be a big help to someone in the future. Because seizures are quite common, you might one day be called on to help.