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Quick Facts

Seizures in Children

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

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What are seizures?

Seizures are changes in the brain's electrical signals.

  • The brain is made up of nerve cells

  • Nerve cells talk to each other through electrical signals

  • Seizures happen if too many nerve cells send signals all at once

What happens to a child during a seizure?

A seizure is the same in a child and an adult. When too many nerve cells send signals, your child's brain can't make any sense of them and abnormal things happen. For example, your child might:

  • Fall down and start shaking all over

  • Become unconscious or confused

Usually after a few minutes, the nerve cells start to behave normally and your child comes back to normal.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is when someone keeps having seizures over a long period of time.

Some children who have a seizure will never have another and do not have epilepsy. Children with epilepsy have many seizures, but the number of seizures varies. Some children have only 1 or 2 seizures a year. Some children have seizures every day.

What causes seizures in children?

Most of the time doctors don’t know what makes a child have seizures.

Sometimes seizures are caused by brain damage due to:

  • Lack of oxygen during birth

  • Head injury

  • Birth defects of the brain

  • Brain infections (such as meningitis)

  • Inherited problems with the body's chemical balance, called metabolic disorders

  • Use of illegal drugs by a pregnant mother

High fever sometimes causes a seizure (febrile seizure) in young children.

What does a seizure look like?

Newborns having a seizure may:

  • Smack their lips or make chewing motions

  • Look in different directions with each eye

  • Become limp

A newborn doesn't usually shake all over like an older child having a seizure.

Older infants or young children having a seizure may:

  • Fall over and have a convulsion (jerking motions of their arms and legs)

  • Arch their back and look stiff

  • Stare blankly or become confused

Sometimes convulsions affect only part of the body, such as the arm and leg on one side.

During a seizure, the child isn't aware of what's going on and can't talk or respond to you. However, the child is still breathing. After the seizure, the child is usually a little confused. The confusion can last up to an hour or two.

Can seizures damage the brain?

Seizures don't harm a child’s brain unless they last a long time, typically an hour or more. Most seizures last only a few minutes.

What should I do if my child is having a seizure?

  • Lay your child down on one side

  • Keep your child away from things that could cause injury (such as stairs or sharp objects)

  • Don't give your child anything to eat or drink until completely awake

Despite what you might have heard:

  • DON'T put anything in your child’s mouth

  • DON'T try to hold your child’s tongue

Call an ambulance if:

  • The seizure lasts more than 5 minutes

  • Your child is injured during the seizure

  • Your child has difficulty breathing after the seizure

  • Another seizure occurs immediately

  • This is your child’s first seizure

If your child has a seizure disorder, you should talk to the doctor about when, where, and how urgently to see a doctor if your child has another seizure.

What does the doctor do after a child has a seizure?

What the doctor does depends on whether:

  • This is your child's first seizure

  • Your child has had seizures before and has had tests to find the cause

This is my child's first seizure

With a first seizure, it's very important that the doctor look for a dangerous cause. After examining your child, doctors will usually do tests. Those tests can include:

  • Blood tests

  • Urine tests (urinalysis)

  • CT, MRI, or ultrasound (scans of the brain to check for certain brain abnormalities)

  • Spinal tap, which is when the doctor inserts a needle into your child’s lower back to take a sample of the fluid that is around the brain and spinal cord

If those tests are normal, the doctor may do a test called an EEG to measure the brain's electrical signals.

  • During this test, a technician places small sticky patches on your child’s head

  • Wires connect the sticky patches to the EEG machine that records the brain's signals

  • The EEG may be done while your child is awake or asleep

My child has had seizures before

If your child has had seizures before and has already had tests, doctors usually aren't worried unless:

  • The seizures are different than usual, or

  • The seizures are coming a lot more often

In such cases, your child should see the doctor, and the doctor may repeat some of the tests. If your child is taking medicine to prevent seizures, the doctor will usually do a blood test to make sure there's enough medicine in your child's bloodstream.

If your child has a seizure that's no different from past seizures, then a doctor visit may not be needed. Talk to your doctor in advance about what to do if your child has another seizure.

How do doctors treat seizures?

To stop a seizure

Most children don't need treatment during a seizure to stop the seizure.

Some seizures last for more than 15 minutes. For these seizures, doctors will give your child medicine by vein (intravenous) to stop the seizure.

To prevent a seizure

  • Children who had only one seizure that lasted only a few minutes generally don't need treatment to prevent seizures

  • Doctors usually give medicines to prevent seizures (anticonvulsants) to children who've had many or long-lasting seizures

Some very serious cases of epilepsy can't be controlled by medicines. Then, a child may have brain surgery or another medical procedure to help avoid future seizures.