Learning that your child has epilepsy is distressing. Seizures can be frightening but with treatment, most children with epilepsy will have occasional or no seizures and lead a fairly normal life. Many children will also grow out of epilepsy.
What is epilepsy?
The word epilepsy describes a group of conditions where the person affected is prone to having seizures.
About 1 in 20 children has a seizure by the time they are 15. But only about 1 in 100 has epilepsy.
The seizures of epilepsy are caused by uncontrolled electrical signals in the brain.
What causes epilepsy in children?
In some children with epilepsy, genetics play a part. But other children have epilepsy because of problems with the structure of their brain, or after damage from an infection or scarring from a brain injury, or after the brain has been damaged due to lack of oxygen. Very occasionally, epilepsy can be a sign of a brain tumour.
For many children, there is no obvious cause of the epilepsy.
How is epilepsy diagnosed?
Epilepsy is diagnosed by a paediatrician or a paediatric neurologist (a doctor who specialises in children’s brains). Parents might be asked to describe their child’s seizures or make video recordings of them, to help the doctor make a diagnosis. Sometimes the doctor might also ask for a child to have a short stay in hospital so their seizures can be recorded.
The child will generally have an electroencephalogram (EEG) – a painless electrical reading of their brain activity. Some children might also have a brain scan (such as a CT scan or an MRI) and blood tests.
What should I do if my child has an epileptic seizure?
If your child has a seizure, stay as calm as possible and:
- remove any objects they could hurt themselves on
- if they’re in water, keep their face above the water
- time the seizure
- loosen tight clothing
- place something soft under their head
- don’t put anything in their mouth
- roll them onto their side when they stop convulsing, or before if there’s fluid in their mouth
- reassure them afterwards and make sure they are breathing normally
Don’t restrain them, but gently keep them out of danger. Talk to them and reassure them.
You should call an ambulance if:
- your child’s seizure lasts more than 5 minutes
- they are still unconscious or have trouble breathing after the seizure
- there is food or drink in their mouth
- the seizure happened in the bath or a pool
- it is their first seizure
- they’re unconscious for more than 5 minutes afterwards, or not breathing normally
- they quicky have another seizure, or they have multiple seizures
- your child also has an injury
- your child has diabetes
- you are going to give them medication to stop the seizure
- you’re unsure whether they need help
How is epilepsy in children treated?
Your child might be able to avoid seizures by:
- getting plenty of sleep
- eating regular meals and exercising
- avoiding anything that triggers a seizure, such as flashing lights
- making sure they don’t miss doses of any prescribed medication
Most children are helped by medication, of which there are many different types. Some children need more intensive therapy, such as:
- surgery to remove brain tissue that is causing seizures
- vagus nerve stimulation therapy, where a device implanted under the skin stimulates a nerve in the neck
- a special diet (high in fat, low in protein and carbohydrate), which should only be done under medical supervision
If your child’s seizures start happening more often, let their doctor know.
Alternative therapies shouldn’t be used to replace mainstream therapies. If you’re considering them, talk to your doctor before you start.
Complications or long-term effects of epilepsy
About 7 out of 10 children with childhood epilepsy will stop needing medication after 2 to 5 years of successful treatment without seizures.
Kids with epilepsy can still do most things. It’s good to take some precautions, like not letting your child swim alone and ensuring they wear a helmet when riding their bike.
If your child is having problems at school, tell their doctor. Most children with epilepsy don’t have learning difficulties, but some do. Effective treatment can reduce epilepsy symptoms such as trouble concentrating.
Brain damage or death from epilepsy is uncommon.
What help is available?
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Last reviewed: November 2020