"Seizure" is a general term that refers to a sudden malfunction in the brain that causes someone to collapse, convulse, or have another temporary disturbance of normal brain function, often with a loss or change in consciousness.
Most seizures are caused by abnormal electrical discharges in the brain or by fainting (decrease in blood flow to the brain). 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 the result of another medical problem, such as low blood sugar, infection, a head injury, accidental poisoning, or drug overdose. They also can be due to 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.
When seizures occur more than once or over and over, it may indicate the ongoing condition epilepsy.
Some kids under 5 years old have febrile seizures, which can occur when they develop a medium or high fever — usually above 100.4º F (38º C). While terrifying to parents, these seizures are usually brief and rarely cause any life-threatening, serious, or long-term problems, unless the fever is associated with a serious infection, such as meningitis.
In kids under 5 years old, breath-holding spells can cause seizures. 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 such a spell occurs.
In older kids, about 10% or more have standard fainting spells (also called syncope), which is often associated with a brief seizure or seizure-like spell. A child may stiffen or even twitch or convulse a few times. Fortunately, this rarely indicates epilepsy. Most kids recover very quickly (seconds to minutes) and don't require 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 sustained 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, confused, or exhausted 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 evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible.
Reviewed by: Fran Filloux, MD
Date reviewed: January 2010
Originally reviewed by: Michael H. Goodman, MD