Seeing your child have a seizure or convulsion can be frightening. Simple first aid can help keep them safe. About 1 in 20 children will have a seizure by the time they are 15. For most, it’s a one-off seizure – very few have epilepsy.
What is a seizure?
A seizure is best described as sudden, momentary surge of electrical activity in the brain. This surge can cause a person to see, feel or smell unusual sensations, or might cause them to move in unusual ways or hold unusual postures.
A fit, where someone falls to the ground and shakes for a minute or so, is just one type of seizure. There are different types of seizures:
- Focal seizures happen in one part of the brain.
- Generalised seizures happen all over the brain.
Seizures can also be described by the symptoms they cause.
- Tonic seizures make the muscles go stiff and often happen when your child is asleep.
- Atonic seizures make your child lose control of their muscles. Their head may slump, or they may fall to the ground.
- Clonic seizures are where the muscles jerk around repeatedly.
- Myoclonic seizures cause the muscles to jerk suddenly and briefly.
- Tonic-clonic seizures (previously called grand mal seizures) are a type of generalised seizure. They’re also known as fits. Someone having a tonic-clonic seizure might fall down, be unconscious, go stiff or jerk, lose bladder or bowel control, and be sleepy or confused afterwards.
- Absence seizures (previously called petit mal seizures) are also generalised seizures. Someone having an absence seizure is not aware of what is happening or responsive to interactions with people. They might stare, blink their eyes or make chewing movements with their mouth.
Some people have focal seizures where they display automatic movements and behaviours like picking at clothing, chewing, swallowing, staring, picking up objects or running on the spot.
The common thread is that the person can't control what happens.
What causes seizures in infants and children?
A high fever (above 38°C) can sometimes cause seizures in young children. These are also called febrile convulsions.
Children can also have a seizure because of:
- an infection
- a brain injury
- a lack of oxygen to the brain
Certain triggers, such as flashing lights, can also lead to seizures in some children.
Most children won’t have another seizure. But children who have repeated and unpredictable seizures might have epilepsy.
What should I do if my child has a seizure?
If your child has a seizure, you should stay calm and:
- gently protect their body and head
- if they’re in water, keep their face out of the water and call for an ambulance
- time the seizure
- don’t put anything in their mouth
- after any convulsion ends, roll them on their side
- lay them on their side if there is fluid in their mouth
- make sure they are breathing normally afterwards
You should call an ambulance if:
- your child’s seizure lasts more than 5 minutes, or they have more than one seizure
- they are still unconscious or have trouble breathing after the seizure
- quicky have another seizure, or they have multiple seizures
- they had a seizure with food or liquid in their mouth
- they’re unconscious or not breathing normally
- it’s their first seizure
- the seizure happened in the bath or a pool
- they’re unconscious for more than 5 minutes afterwards, or not breathing normally
- 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 are seizures diagnosed?
A doctor will assess your child. You should describe the seizure (how your child looked and behaved) to the doctor, or show them a video of the seizure, if possible.
If your child had a febrile convulsion, they may not need to undergo any tests, but they should still see a doctor.
However, if your child had a seizure, and especially if they had more than one, they might have tests such as an electroencephalogram (EEG), which is a reading of the electrical activity of the brain, blood tests, or a brain scan (such as a CT scan or an MRI).
Treatments for seizures in children
Following any seizure, perform first aid. Where a seizure continues for an extended period of time (more than 5 minutes), seek medical assistance. It might be necessary for a health professional to give medication to stop it.
Febrile convulsions aren’t usually harmful, but it’s a good idea to see a doctor to make sure your child doesn’t have a serious infection. However, children who have a febrile convulsion can be prone to having a seizure again in the future.
If a child experiences multiple seizures, regular medication might be needed. Several different medications might need to be tried to find one that is effective. Other treatments, such as surgery or vagus nerve stimulation therapy, are sometimes used.
Can seizures be prevented?
The good news is that many children grow out of seizures or epilepsy.
Febrile convulsions can’t always be prevented, and can happen before a fever is obvious.
Your child should avoid anything that is known to trigger their seizures.
If your child is on medication for seizures, it is important to avoid missing doses. Getting a good night’s sleep and regular meals can also help.
Risks and complications of seizures
Most children recover well after a seizure, although they might be sleepy and confused for a short while. It’s rare to die from a seizure, but there are risks if the seizure goes on for a long time (30 minutes, for example, or more) or if the child chokes on water or vomit.
What help is available?
Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have. You can also call Pregnancy Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436, or video call, for advice and support.
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Last reviewed: November 2020