Best Advice If Your Child Has a Seizure? Don’t Panic

Don't assume it's epilepsy, but see your pediatrician

Worried mother holds her daughters hand while she lays in recovery after a operation

Seizures have many causes and are fairly common in children, so don’t panic if your child has one.

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It doesn’t necessarily mean he or she has epilepsy, nor does it mean the child has a greater risk of developing epilepsy in the future, says neurologist Ajay Gupta, MD, Section Head of Pediatric Epilepsy in Cleveland Clinic’s Epilepsy Center/Neurological Institute.

A seizure occurs when many brain cells abnormally fire at the same time. This temporarily disrupts the brain’s normal electrical signals. The intense, excessive electrical activity overwhelms the brain and may cause changes in behavior, awareness and body movements.

How seizures and epilepsy relate

The term “epilepsy” doesn’t refer to a specific disease, but to a tendency to have recurrent, unprovoked seizures over time. Possible causes of seizures in children and adolescents are:

A seizure that occurs when a child has a high fever, called a febrile seizure, or due to some other cause, usually does not recur and isn’t considered epilepsy.

Febrile seizures most commonly occur between the ages of 6 months and 5 years.

“Although frightening to parents, most febrile seizures are harmless,” Dr. Gupta says. “Less than 5 percent of children who have these seizures go on to develop epilepsy.”

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The 5 percent who do develop epilepsy typically have one or more of the following indicators:

  • Family history of epilepsy
  • Neurological disability (e.g., cerebral palsy)
  • Developmental delays
  • Partial (one limb or one side) or prolonged (>15 minutes)  or multiple febrile seizures during the same illness

Children without these risk factors most likely will not develop epilepsy, Dr. Gupta says.

What to do if your child has a seizure

“It’s very important that you don’t panic when your child has a seizure,” says Dr. Gupta. “Instead, try to stay calm and observe the child.”

To keep your child safe and prevent accidental injury during a seizure, he advises parents to do the following:

  • Place child on a soft surface, such as a bed.
  • Prevent choking by laying the child on his or her side or stomach.
  • Ensure that the child is breathing adequately.
  • Never place anything in the child’s mouth during a convulsion.
  • Gently clean saliva or other debris from the child’s mouth with a soft cloth.
  • Check the time when the seizure begins and note how long it lasts.
  • Administer any treatment that your doctor has prescribed to stop seizure if this is a recurrence of febrile seizure. Call 911 if the seizure does not stop within three to five minutes or the child does not fully regain consciousness.
  • When fully awake, give your child a medication (e.g., acetaminophen, ibuprofen) to reduce fever.

Dr. Gupta says most fever-induced seizures last for less than three minutes. He advises that you take your child to the pediatrician within the next day or two so your doctor can find the fever’s source.

Your description of your child’s seizure is important for helping the pediatrician with the evaluation. The doctor will likely perform physical examination and possibly some basic tests to ensure that nothing other than a fever has triggered the seizure.

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Dr. Gupta says parents should educate themselves about febrile seizures. Also, ask your pediatrician for tips on keeping your child’s fever down during an illness. This may decrease the chances of fever-related seizures.

Take faster action if you see these signs

If convulsions last five minutes or longer, take the child to the nearest medical facility for evaluation right away.

“Also, seek urgent medical attention for a child who shows symptoms of extreme lethargy, vomiting or a stiff neck,” says Dr. Gupta.

Other causes for concern include:

  • A seizure that occurs on only one side of the body
  • A fever of 104 degrees or higher
  • More than one seizure in one day during the same illness
  • A seizure with no associated fever or illness

If any symptoms cause you concern, don’t hesitate to contact your pediatrician.

More information
Epilepsy treatment guide

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