Febrile seizures are convulsions that can happen during a fever (febrile means "feverish"). They affect kids 6 months to 5 years old, and are most common in toddlers 12-18 months old. The seizures usually last for a few minutes and happen when a child has a fever above 100.4°F (38°C).
While they can be frightening to see, febrile seizures usually end without treatment and don't cause any other health problems. Having one doesn't mean that a child will have epilepsy or brain damage.
About Febrile Seizures
During a febrile seizure, a child's whole body may convulse, shake, and twitch; his or her eyes may roll; and he or she may moan or become unconscious. Children can sometimes vomit or urinate (pee) on themselves during the convulsions. This type of seizure is usually over in a few minutes, but in rare cases can last up to 15 minutes.
Febrile seizures stop on their own, though the fever continues until it is treated. Some kids might feel sleepy afterward; others feel no after-effects.
No one is sure why febrile seizures happen, although evidence suggests that they're linked to certain viral infections and fevers. Kids with a family history of febrile seizures are more likely to have one, and about 35% of kids who have had one seizure will have another (usually within the first 1-2 years of the first). Kids who are younger (under 15 months) when they have their first febrile seizure are also at higher risk for a future febrile seizure. Most children outgrow having febrile seizures by the time they are 5 years old.
Febrile seizures are not considered epilepsy, and kids who've had one have only a slightly increased risk for developing epilepsy than kids who haven't.
Treating Febrile Seizures
If your child has a febrile seizure, stay calm and:
Make sure your child is in a safe place and cannot fall down or hit something hard.
Lay your child on his or her side to prevent choking.
Watch for signs of breathing difficulty, including any color change in your child's face.
If the seizure lasts more than several minutes, or your child turns blue, it may be a more serious type of seizure — call 911 right away.
It's also important to know what not to do during a febrile seizure:
Do not try to hold or restrain your child.
Do not put anything in your child's mouth.
Do not try to give your child fever-reducing medicine.
Do not try to put your child into cool or lukewarm water to cool off.
If your child is vomiting or has a lot of saliva (spit) coming from the mouth, turn his or her head to the side to prevent choking.
When the seizure is over, call your doctor. The doctor will examine your child to determine the cause of the fever, and ask you to describe the seizure. In most cases, no additional treatment is necessary. The doctor may recommend the standard treatment for fevers, which is acetaminophen or ibuprofen. But if your child is under 1 year old, looks very ill, or has other symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting, the doctor may recommend some testing.
Get help right away from a health care provider if:
the seizure lasts more than several minutes
your child is having trouble breathing or is changing color
your child looks ill
your child looks lethargic and is not responding normally
Febrile seizures can be scary to witness, but remember that they're fairly common, are not usually a symptom of serious illness, and in most cases don't lead to other health problems. If you have any questions or concerns, talk with your doctor.