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Seizures are sudden events that causes temporary changes in physical movement, sensation, behavior or consciousness, caused by abnormal electrical impulses in the brain. Depending on where in the brain the seizure starts and spreads, the symptoms can vary. A seizure may cause sudden stiffening of the body, rhythmic jerking of part of the body, or complete relaxation of the muscles. Sometimes seizures can cause cessation of activity. 

When a Seizure Involves the Whole Body:

A seizure that involves the whole body (sometimes called a “generalized tonic-clonic” or “grand mal” seizure) is the most dramatic type of seizure, causing rapid, rhythmic and sometimes violent movements, often with loss of consciousness. These sometimes can start with focal movements (those involving one specific part of the body) and progress to generalized (i.e., both sides of the body) movements.

Convulsion incidence in childhood:

Convulsions occur in about 5 out of every 100 people at some time during childhood. 

About absence seizures: 

By contrast, “absence” seizures (previously called “petit mal” seizures) are momentary episodes with a vacant stare or a brief (one- or two-second) lapse of attention. These occur mainly in young children and may be so subtle that they aren’t noticed until they begin affecting schoolwork.

Febrile Seizures 

Febrile seizures (seizures caused by high fever) occur in 3 or 4 out of every 100 children between six months and five years of age, but most often around twelve to eighteen months old.

Children younger than one year at the time of their first simple febrile seizure have approximately a 50 percent chance of having another, while children over one year of age when they have their first seizure have about a 30 percent chance of having a second one. Nevertheless, only a very small number out of 100 children will go on to develop chronic seizures without a fever.

Symptoms of febrile seizures:

  • Commonly presents as a convulsion, with twitching and jerking movements that involve the whole body. 
  • Other symptoms can be as as mild as a rolling of the eyes or stiffening of the limbs. 
  • Usually last less than two or three minutes.
  • Ordinarily the child’s behavior shortly returns to normal afterwards.

How Epilepsy Describes Seizures:

The term epilepsy is used to describe seizures that occur repeatedly over time without an acute illness (like fever) or brain injury. Sometimes, the cause of the recurring seizures is known (symptomatic epilepsy), and sometimes it is not (idiopathic epilepsy)

Other Similar Disorders:

Some children experience sudden episodes that might masquerade or imitate seizures, but are really not. Examples include:

  • Breath holding
  • Fainting(syncope)
  • Facial or body twitching (myoclonus)
  • Sleep disorders (night terrors, sleepwalking, and cataplexy)

They may occur just once or may recur over a limited time period. Again, although these episodes may resemble epilepsy, they are not, and they require quite different diagnostic tests and treatment.

If Your Child is Having a Convulsion:

Most seizures will stop on their own and do not require immediate medical treatment. If your child is having a convulsion, protect her from injuring herself by laying her on her side with her hips higher than her head, so she will not choke if she vomits. Do not put anything in the mouth. 

  • If the convulsion does not stop within two or three minutes or is unusually severe(difficulty breathing, choking, blueness of the skin, having several in a row), call 911 for emergency medical help. Do not leave your child unattended, however. After the seizure stops, call the pediatrician  immediately and arrange to meet in the doctor’s office or the nearest emergency department. Also call your doctor if your child is on an anticonvulsant medication, since this may mean that the dosage must be adjusted.
  • If your child has a fever, the pediatrician will check to see if there is an infection. If there is no fever and this was your child’s first convulsion, the doctor will try to determine other possible causes by asking if there is a family history of seizures or if your child has had any recent head injury. He will examine your child and also may order blood tests, pictures of the brain using computed tomography (CAT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or testing with an electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures the electrical activity of the brain. Sometimes a spinal tap will be performed to obtain a specimen of spinal fluid that can be examined for some causes of convulsions such as meningitis, an infection of the lining of the brain. If no explanation or cause can be found for the seizures, the doctor may consult a pediatric neurologist, a pediatrician who specializes in disorders of the nervous system.
  • If your child has had a febrile convulsion, some parents may try controlling the fever using acetaminophen and sponging. However, these approaches do not prevent future febrile seizures, but only make the child more comfortable. If a bacterial infection is present, your doctor will probably prescribe an antibiotic. If a serious infection such as meningitis is responsible for the seizure, your child will have to be hospitalized for further treatment. Also, when seizures are caused by abnormal amounts of sugar, sodium, or calcium in the blood, hospitalization may be required so that the cause can be found and the imbalances corrected.
  • If epilepsy is diagnosed, your child usually will be placed on an anticonvulsant medication. When the proper dosage is maintained, the seizures can almost always be completely controlled. Your child may need to have her blood checked periodically after starting some medications to make certain there is an adequate amount present. She also may need periodic EEGs. Medication usually is continued until there have been no seizures for a year or two.


As frightening as seizures can be, it's encouraging to know that the likelihood that your child will have another one drops greatly as she gets older. (Only 1 in 100 adults has a seizure). Unfortunately, a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion about seizures still exists, so it is important that your child’s friends and teachers become educated about her condition.

If you need additional support or information, consult with your pediatrician or contact your local or state branch of the Epilepsy Foundation of America.

Additional Information:


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Developed with funding from the Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau under grant U23MC08582 for Project Access. (Copyright © 2010 Epilepsy Foundation of America, Inc)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.