Seizures

Seizures are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Someone having a seizure might collapse, shake uncontrollably, or have another brief disturbance in brain function, often with a loss of or change in consciousness.

Seizures can be frightening, but most last only a few minutes, stop on their own, and are not life threatening.

Seizure Basics

Most seizures are due to abnormal electrical discharges in the brain or fainting. Symptoms may vary depending on the part of the brain involved, but often include unusual sensations, uncontrollable muscle spasms, and loss of consciousness.

Some seizures may be due to another medical problem, such as low blood sugar, an infection, a head injury, accidental poisoning, or drug overdose. They also can be caused by a brain tumor or other health problem affecting the brain. And anything that results in a sudden lack of oxygen or a reduction in blood flow to the brain can cause a seizure. In some cases, a seizure's cause is never discovered.

Seizures that happen more than once or over and over might indicate the ongoing condition epilepsy.

Some kids under 5 years old have febrile seizures, which can develop during a medium or high fever — usually above 100.4°F (38°C). While terrifying to parents, these seizures are usually brief and rarely cause any serious or long-term problems, unless the fever is associated with a serious infection, such as meningitis.

Young kids also might have breath-holding spells that lead to a seizure. These aren't the spells where kids hold their breath to get back at their parents. Instead, these occur in kids who have an exaggerated reflex so that when they're hurt or emotionally upset they stop taking in a breath (with or without crying hard first). They then turn blue or very pale, often pass out, and might have a full convulsion-like seizure in which the body is stiff and they're unconscious and not breathing. While scary to parents, these spells usually stop on their own and the kids almost never suffer any harm from them. Call your doctor if your child has such a spell.

Episodes of syncope (SIN-ko-pee), or fainting spells, are not uncommon in older kids and teens. When they happen, kids might have a brief seizure or seizure-like spell. They might stiffen or even twitch or convulse a few times. Fortunately, fainting is rarely a sign of epilepsy. Most kids recover very quickly (seconds to minutes) and don't need specialized treatment.

If Your Child Has a Seizure

A child who is having a seizure should be placed on the ground or floor in a safe area, preferably on his or her right side. Remove any nearby objects. Loosen any clothing around the head or neck. Do not try to wedge the child's mouth open or place an object between the teeth, and do not attempt to restrain movements.

Once the seizure seems to have ended, gently comfort and protect your child. It's best for kids to remain lying down until they have recovered fully and want to move around.

Call 911 immediately if your child:

  • has difficulty breathing
  • turns bluish in color
  • has had a head injury
  • seems ill
  • has a known heart condition
  • has never had a seizure before
  • might have ingested any poisons, medications, etc.

If your child has previously had seizures, call 911 if the seizure lasts more than 5 minutes or is for some reason very alarming to you and you're worried for your child's safety.

If your child is breathing normally and the seizure lasts just a few minutes, you can wait until it lets up to call your doctor.

Following the seizure, kids are often be tired or confused and may fall into a deep sleep (called the postictal period). You do not need to try to wake your child as long as he or she is breathing comfortably. Do not attempt to give food or drink until your child is awake and alert.

For a child who has febrile seizures, the doctor may suggest giving fever-reducing medicine like ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

After a seizure — particularly if it is a first or unexplained seizure — call your doctor or emergency medical services for instructions. Your child will usually need to be seen by a doctor as soon as possible.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: October 2014