When older infants or young children have seizures, they often have typical symptoms, such as shaking or jerking of part or all of the body, but newborns may only smack their lips, chew involuntarily, or periodically go limp.
Electroencephalography (EEG) is used to diagnose the disorder, and blood and urine tests, brain imaging, and sometimes a spinal tap are done to try to identify the cause.
When a child has a convulsion, parents or other caregivers should try to protect the child from harm—for example, by keeping the child away from stairs, sharp objects, and other potential hazards. They should not put anything in the child’s mouth and should not try to hold the child’s tongue.
Treatment is focused mainly on the cause, but if seizures continue after the cause is treated, children are given antiseizure medications.
Seizures are an abnormal, unregulated electrical discharge of nerve cells in the brain or in part of the brain. This abnormal discharge can cause
Convulsions are violent, involuntary, jerking and/or stiffening of muscles in a large part of the body.
Epilepsy is not a specific disorder but refers to a tendency to have recurring seizures that may or may not have an identifiable cause.
Seizures in children are often similar to seizures in adults Seizure Disorders In seizure disorders, the brain's electrical activity is periodically disturbed, resulting in some degree of temporary brain dysfunction. Many people have unusual sensations just before a seizure... read more . However, some types of seizures, such as febrile seizures Febrile Seizures Febrile seizures are seizures triggered by a fever of at least 100.4° F (about 38° C). Most febrile seizures are harmless and caused by fever resulting from a minor infection. Less often, a... read more and infantile spasms Infantile Spasms In infantile spasms, children suddenly raise and bend their arms, bend their neck and upper body forward, and straighten their legs. The spasms are usually caused by serious brain disorders... read more , occur only in children.
Certain conditions in children, such as breath-holding spells Breath-Holding Spells A breath-holding spell is an episode in which the child involuntarily stops breathing and loses consciousness for a short period immediately after a frightening or emotionally upsetting event... read more and night terrors Night Terrors and Sleepwalking Most children sleep for a stretch of at least 5 hours by age 3 months but then have periods of night waking later in the first years of life, often when they have an illness. As they get older... read more , may resemble seizures but do not involve abnormal electrical activity in the brain and thus are not seizures.
Status epilepticus refers to a single long-lasting seizure or several shorter seizures that occur without the child regaining consciousness between seizures.
Children with status epilepticus are at risk of brain damage, so prompt treatment of any seizures lasting more than 5 minutes is necessary.
Causes of Seizures in Children
In newborns, seizures may be caused by
A serious disorder, such as a brain malformation Overview of Brain and Spinal Cord Birth Defects Birth defects of the brain and spinal cord can occur in early or late fetal development. Typical symptoms include intellectual disability, paralysis, incontinence, or loss of sensation in some... read more , injury of the brain during pregnancy, lack of oxygen during birth, or a serious infection
Inherited disorders that result from mutations in a gene such as a hereditary disorder of metabolism Overview of Hereditary Metabolic Disorders Hereditary metabolic disorders are inherited genetic conditions that cause metabolism problems. Heredity is the passing of genes from one generation to the next. Children inherit their parents'... read more
Use of certain drugs or medications by the mother during pregnancy
Seizures caused by hereditary disorders of metabolism typically start during infancy or childhood.
In older infants and children, the cause of seizures may be unknown.
Febrile seizures Febrile Seizures Febrile seizures are seizures triggered by a fever of at least 100.4° F (about 38° C). Most febrile seizures are harmless and caused by fever resulting from a minor infection. Less often, a... read more are fairly common in young children.
Seizures may run in families.
Symptoms of Seizures in Children
In newborns, seizures may be difficult to recognize. Newborns may smack their lips or chew involuntarily. Their eyes may appear to gaze in different directions. They may periodically go limp and/or stop breathing.
In older infants or young children, one part or all of the body may shake, jerk, or tighten up. The limbs may move without purpose. Children may stare, become confused, have unusual sensations (such as numbness or tingling) in parts of the body, or have unusual feelings (such as feeling very afraid for no reason).
Did You Know...
Diagnosis of Seizures in Children
Other tests to check for a cause depending on the child's symptoms and physical examination
Children who have seizures are evaluated immediately to check for serious causes and causes that can be corrected.
If a child has had a seizure, doctors do a physical examination. They also ask the parents whether any family members have had seizures.
Electroencephalography Electroencephalography Diagnostic procedures may be needed to confirm a diagnosis suggested by the medical history and neurologic examination. Electroencephalography (EEG) is a simple, painless procedure in which... read more (EEG—a test that records brain waves using sensors placed on the scalp) is done to check for abnormal electrical activity in the brain. EEG is done while infants or children are awake and while they are asleep.
Doctors do other tests to check for a cause based on the child's symptoms and the results of the examination. These tests may include
Measurement of the oxygen level in the blood using a sensor clipped on a finger (pulse oximetry Pulse oximetry Both arterial blood gas testing and pulse oximetry measure the amount of oxygen in the blood, which helps determine how well the lungs are functioning. Arterial blood gas tests are invasive... read more ) to determine whether the oxygen level is low
Blood tests to measure blood sugar (glucose), calcium, magnesium, sodium, and other substances to check for metabolic disorders
A spinal tap Spinal Tap Diagnostic procedures may be needed to confirm a diagnosis suggested by the medical history and neurologic examination. Electroencephalography (EEG) is a simple, painless procedure in which... read more (lumbar puncture) to obtain a sample of the fluid around the brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid), which is analyzed and checked for brain infections and other disorders
Cultures of blood and urine to check for infections
Brain imaging tests, such as computed tomography (CT) Computed Tomography (CT) In computed tomography (CT), which used to be called computed axial tomography (CAT), an x-ray source and x-ray detector rotate around a person. In modern scanners, the x-ray detector usually... read more or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) In magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a strong magnetic field and very high frequency radio waves are used to produce highly detailed images. MRI does not use x-rays and is usually very safe... read more , to check for malformations of the brain, bleeding, tumors, and other structural damage to brain tissue (for example, by a stroke)
Genetic tests to look for genetic disorders that may be associated with seizures
Treatment of Seizures in Children
Treatment of the cause
Sometimes surgery or other procedures if medications are ineffective
Treatment of seizures in infants and children is focused mainly on the cause of the seizure. For example, children who have a bacterial infection are given antibiotics, and children who have low a level of sugar (glucose) in their blood are given glucose. Other treatable causes include abnormal levels of sodium, calcium, and magnesium in the blood and some tumors and viral infections.
Sometimes children need to take medications to control seizures (antiseizure medications), particularly if the cause cannot be corrected.
If medications are ineffective, surgery may be recommended.
When a child has a convulsion, parents or other caregivers should do the following to try to protect the child from harm:
Lay the child down on one side.
Keep the child away from potential hazards (such as stairs or sharp objects).
Do not put anything in the child’s mouth and do not try to hold the child’s tongue.
Did You Know...
After the seizure ends, parents or other caregivers should do the following:
Stay with the child until the child is fully awake.
Check whether the child is breathing and, if breathing is not apparent, start mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing Standard CPR Cardiac arrest is when the heart stops pumping blood and oxygen to the brain and other organs and tissues. Sometimes a person can be revived after cardiac arrest, particularly if treatment is... read more (if the child is having convulsions, attempting rescue breathing is unnecessary and can injure the child or the rescuer) and alert emergency medical services.
Do not give any food, liquid, or medication by mouth until the child is fully awake.
Check for fever and, if present, treat it.
Fever can be lowered by giving the child acetaminophen by suppository placed in the rectum if the child is unconscious or too young to take medications by mouth or by giving acetaminophen or ibuprofen by mouth if the child is conscious. Also, warm clothing should be removed.
An ambulance should be called if any of the following occur:
This is the child's first seizure.
The seizure lasts more than 5 minutes.
The child is injured during the seizure or has difficulty breathing after the seizure.
Another seizure occurs immediately.
All children should be taken to the hospital emergency department the first time they have a seizure. For children who are already known to have a seizure disorder Seizure Disorders In seizure disorders, the brain's electrical activity is periodically disturbed, resulting in some degree of temporary brain dysfunction. Many people have unusual sensations just before a seizure... read more , parents should discuss in advance with the doctor when, where, and how urgently evaluation is required if another seizure occurs.
Doctors usually give medications to end a seizure that lasts 5 minutes or more to prevent status epilepticus. Medications include a sedative and antiseizure medications. These medications are usually given by vein (intravenously). If a medication cannot be given intravenously, a sedative gel may be put into the rectum or a sedative liquid may be put into the nose (intranasally). Children who have received these medications or who have a prolonged seizure or status epilepticus are carefully monitored for problems with breathing and blood pressure.
If children continue to have seizures after the cause is treated, they are given antiseizure medications intravenously. They are then closely observed to check for possible side effects, such as slowed breathing.
If antiseizure medications control the seizures, they may be stopped before children are discharged from the nursery or hospital. Whether antiseizure medications are stopped depends on the cause of the seizures, their severity, and the results of the EEG.
If children have only one seizure, they usually do not need to take an antiseizure medication (see sidebar Using Medications to Treat Seizures in Children Using Drugs to Treat Seizures in Children ). Antiseizure medications are used if seizures recur or are likely to recur.
The antiseizure medication dose is usually increased if a standard dose does not adequately control seizures. The dose may also be adjusted as children grow and their weight increases. Another antiseizure medication may be added or substituted if the first one was only partly effective or had bothersome side effects. Antiseizure medications can interact with other medications, so parents should tell their child's doctor all the medications and supplements the child is taking.
At times, doctors do blood tests to measure the level of the medication, which helps determine whether the dose is correct and whether the child is taking the medication. These tests are sometimes repeated when the dose is changed, when the child has grown significantly, or when a new medication is started.
The need to continue taking antiseizure medications depends on what caused the seizures and how long children have been seizure-free. Most children continue taking antiseizure medications until they have had no seizures for 2 years. The risk of having a seizure after 2 seizure-free years is less than 50%. However, having another disorder that affects the brain and nerves (such as cerebral palsy Cerebral Palsy (CP) Cerebral palsy refers to a group of conditions that involve difficulty moving and muscle stiffness (spasticity). It results from brain malformations that occur before birth as the brain is developing... read more ) increases the risk of having another seizure.
When antiseizure medications are to be stopped, the dose is reduced over a period of time rather than stopping it all at once.
Surgery for seizures
Surgery occasionally may be an option for children (but generally not for newborns or infants) if they continue to have seizures while taking two or more antiseizure medications or if side effects are intolerable. This operation involves surgically removing an area of the brain. It is usually done only when seizures are caused by only one area in the brain and that one area can be removed without significantly affecting the child's ability to function. Sometimes this operation substantially reduces the number of seizures a child has. Tests may be done to help locate the area in the brain that is causing seizures. These tests include the following:
MRI to determine the functions of the areas of the brain near the area that is causing the seizures (called functional MRI)
Continuous video-EEG (in which brain waves and a video of the child are recorded at the same time)
Before surgery is done, a neurosurgeon and a neurologist (usually one who specializes in caring for people with epilepsy) explain the risks and benefits of surgery to the parents. Even when surgery reduces the frequency and severity of seizures, many children need to continue to take antiseizure medications. However, they can usually take lower doses or fewer medications.
Stimulating the vagus nerve
Stimulating the vagus nerve (the 10th cranial nerve Overview of the Cranial Nerves Twelve pairs of nerves—the cranial nerves—lead directly from the brain to various parts of the head, neck, and trunk. Some of the cranial nerves are involved in the special senses (such as seeing... read more ) can sometimes reduce the number of seizures children have. The vagus nerve is thought to have indirect connections to areas of the brain that are often involved in causing seizures. This procedure can be used in children as young as 4 years old. Doctors consider using this procedure when antiseizure medications are ineffective and epilepsy surgery is not possible.
To stimulate the vagus nerve, doctors implant a device that resembles a heart pacemaker under the left collarbone and connect it to the vagus nerve in the neck with a wire that runs under the skin. The device causes a small bulge under the skin. The device turns on and off all the time and thus periodically stimulates the vagus nerve. The doctor can easily and painlessly change the settings for stimulating the nerve using a magnetic wand placed over the device. Also, when the child senses that a seizure is starting or when a family member sees a seizure begin, a magnet (often worn in a bracelet) can be used to set the device to stimulate the nerve more often.
Vagus nerve stimulation is used in addition to antiseizure medications. Possible side effects include hoarseness, cough, and deepening of the voice when the nerve is stimulated. Vagus nerve stimulation usually makes the child more alert. Increased alertness may improve attention but sometimes interferes with sleep.
Stimulating the brain
Sometimes, giving electrical stimulation to the part of the brain in which seizures start can interrupt a seizure before it begins or shorten a seizure that has started. The responsive neurostimulation system is a device that looks like a heart pacemaker. It is implanted within the skull. The device is connected by wires to one or two areas in the brain that are causing the seizures. This system monitors the brain's electrical activity. When it detects unusual electrical activity, it stimulates the areas of the brain that are causing the seizures.
The responsive neurostimulation system is used in addition to antiseizure medications.
Surgery to implant the system requires general anesthesia General anesthesia Surgery is the term traditionally used to describe procedures (called surgical procedures) that involve manually cutting or stitching tissue to treat diseases, injuries, or deformities. However... read more . Children need to stay in the hospital overnight. Many children return to their normal daily activities within a few days.
Children cannot feel the device or the stimulation, and the device can be removed if needed.
A ketogenic diet may be prescribed by the doctor in some situations. This strict diet is typically medically supervised by a dietician, a neurologist, and perhaps other health care personnel at a specialized center.
The ketogenic diet is very low in carbohydrates and very high in fat. When the body breaks down fat to use for energy, substances called ketones are formed. In some children, the ketones help control seizures.
The ketogenic diet must be carefully followed and requires that the amounts of foods be measured precisely. Even one bite or taste of a restricted food can lead to a seizure. Children may have difficulty following such a strict diet. If children who are following a ketogenic diet improve substantially, the diet is often continued for at least 2 years.
Side effects of a ketogenic diet may include a low blood sugar level, sluggishness (lethargy), and weight loss.
Sometimes the Atkins diet is used instead. It is a less strict form of the ketogenic diet.
Prognosis for Seizures in Children
The prognosis depends on the cause.
A seizure itself does not appear to damage the brain or cause lasting problems unless it continues for more than 30 minutes (most seizures last only a few minutes). However, many disorders that cause seizures can cause lasting problems. For example, some disorders can interfere with the child's development. Whether some types of recurring seizures can affect the developing brain is debated.
The following English-language resources may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of these resources.
Epilepsy Foundation: Information about community services, research, public education, and seizure first aid training for epilepsy
Epilepsy Action: Provides advice, advocacy, education, and supportive care services