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Breath-Holding Spells

By

Stephen Brian Sulkes

, MD, Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

Last full review/revision Aug 2021| Content last modified Aug 2021
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A breath-holding spell is an episode in which the child stops breathing involuntarily and loses consciousness for a short period immediately after a frightening or emotionally upsetting event or after a painful experience.

Breath-holding spells occur in 0.1% to 5% of otherwise healthy children. They usually begin in the first year of life and peak at age 2. They disappear by age 4 in 50% of children and by age 8 in about 83% of children. The remainder may continue to have spells into adulthood. Breath-holding spells do not appear to be risk factors for true epilepsy but may be associated with an increased risk of fainting spells in adulthood.

There are 2 forms of breath-holding spells:

Both forms are involuntary and readily distinguished from uncommon brief periods of voluntary breath-holding by stubborn children, who invariably resume normal breathing after getting what they want or after becoming uncomfortable when they fail to get what they want.

During a cyanotic breath-holding spell, children hold their breath (without necessarily being aware they are doing so) until they lose consciousness. Typically, the child cries out, exhales, and stops breathing. Shortly afterward, the child begins to turn blue and unconsciousness ensues. A brief seizure may occur. After a few seconds, breathing resumes and normal skin color and consciousness return. It may be possible to interrupt a spell by placing a cold rag on the child’s face at onset. Despite the spell’s frightening nature, parents must try to avoid reinforcing the initiating behavior. As the child recovers, parents should continue to enforce household rules. Distracting the child and avoiding situations that lead to tantrums are good strategies. Cyanotic breath-holding has been found to respond to iron therapy (1 Treatment reference A breath-holding spell is an episode in which the child stops breathing involuntarily and loses consciousness for a short period immediately after a frightening or emotionally upsetting event... read more ), even in the absence of anemia, and to treatment for obstructive sleep apnea Treatment Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is episodes of partial or complete closure of the upper airway that occur during sleep and lead to breathing cessation. Symptoms include snoring and sometimes restless... read more (when present).

During a pallid breath-holding spell, vagal stimulation severely slows the heart rate. The child stops breathing, rapidly loses consciousness, and becomes pale and limp. If the spell lasts more than a few seconds, muscle tone increases, and a seizure and incontinence may occur. After the spell, the heart speeds up again, breathing restarts, and consciousness returns without any treatment. Because this form is rare, further diagnostic evaluation and treatment may be needed if the spells occur often. Simultaneous ECG and electroencephalography can help to differentiate cardiac and neurologic causes.

Treatment reference

  • 1. Hamed SA, Gad EF, Sherif TK: Iron deficiency and cyanotic breath-holding spells: The effectiveness of iron therapy. Pediatr Hematol Oncol 35(3):186–195, 2018. doi: 10.1080/08880018.2018.1491659

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