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Quick Facts

Breath-Holding Spells


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Oct 2020| Content last modified Oct 2020
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What are breath-holding spells?

Breath-holding spells are when children hold their breath, faint for a very short time, and then wake up and are fine.

Breath-holding spells are common, but most children have only a few.

What causes breath-holding spells?

Doctors aren't sure why children have breath-holding spells. Some children have them during a temper tantrum Temper Tantrums All children get angry from time to time. A temper tantrum is an extreme, angry outburst. They usually happen in children 1 to 4 years old. Children may scream, cry, roll on the floor, throw... read more . Other children have them after being frightened, startled, or hurt.

Children who have a seizure disorder Seizure Disorders Seizures are changes in the brain's electrical signals. A seizure disorder is a problem that causes a person to have seizures. The brain is made up of nerve cells. Nerve cells talk to each other... read more (epilepsy) also can stop breathing, pass out, and have a seizure. But that's not a breath-holding spell. Brain problems cause seizure disorders. Brain problems don't cause breath-holding spells.

Is my child breath-holding on purpose?

No, not in a breath-holding spell.

However, some children do hold their breath when they're angry. They are doing it on purpose. They don't pass out, so it's not a breath-holding spell.

What are the symptoms of a breath-holding spell?

During a breath-holding spell, your child may:

How do doctors diagnose breath-holding spells?

Doctors base the diagnosis on:

  • Your description of what happened

  • An examination of your child that shows nothing abnormal

How do doctors treat breath-holding spells?

Breath-holding spells last only a few minutes, so they're over before you can see a doctor.

To help prevent a tantrum from turning into a breath-holding spell, direct your child's attention to something else. If possible, avoid situations that brought on spells in the past.

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