Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) is the leading cause of death in patients with refractory epilepsy, with an estimated 35% lifetime risk in this patient population. There is a surprising lack of awareness among patients and physicians of this increased risk of sudden death: in a recent survey, only 33% of Canadian paediatricians who treated patients with epilepsy knew the term SUDEP. Controversy prevails over whether cardiac arrhythmia or respiratory arrest is more important as the primary cause of death. Effective preventive strategies in high-risk patients will rely on definition of the mechanisms that lead from seizures to death. Here, we summarize evidence for the mechanisms that cause cardiac, respiratory and arousal abnormalities during the ictal and postictal period. We highlight potential cellular mechanisms underlying these abnormalities, such as a defect in the serotonergic system, ictal adenosine release, and changes in autonomic output. We discuss genetic mutations that cause Dravet and long QT syndromes, both of which are linked with increased risk of sudden death. We then highlight possible preventive interventions that are likely to decrease SUDEP incidence, including respiratory monitoring in epilepsy monitoring units and overnight supervision. Finally, we discuss treatments, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, that might be personalized to a specific genetic or pathological defect.