MSD Manual

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Quick Facts

Breath-Holding Spells

By

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.

  • Children aren't holding their breath on purpose

  • Spells often happen right after something scary, upsetting, or painful

  • Breath-holding spells usually happen between about age 1 year and 5 years but can happen in slightly older children

  • Children turn pale or blue and then pass out

  • Some have a brief seizure (shaking all over)

  • After a few seconds, they start breathing again and wake up

  • Breath-holding spells are scary to watch but aren't dangerous

What causes breath-holding spells?

Doctors aren't sure why children have breath-holding spells. Some children have them during a temper tantrum. Other children have them after being frightened, startled, or hurt.

Children who have a seizure disorder (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:

  • Cry out

  • Stop breathing and faint

  • Become pale or blue

  • Sometimes shake all over (have a seizure)

  • Start breathing again, wake up, and feel okay

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

If your child's examination isn't normal or what happened doesn't sound like a typical breath-holding spell, doctors may do tests. They want to make sure your child doesn't have some other disorder. They may do blood tests, an ECG, and a brain wave test (EEG).

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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