Learn More About Pediatric Seizures

  • What is a seizure?

      The brain is the center that controls and regulates all voluntary and involuntary responses in the body. It consists of nerve cells that normally communicate with one another through electrical activity.

      A seizure occurs when parts of the brain receive a burst of abnormal electrical signals that temporarily interrupt normal electrical brain function. During an epileptic seizure, the neurons may fire as many times as 500 times a second, compared to a normal rate of 80 times a second.

      For some people, seizures only happen occasionally; for others, it may happen up to hundreds of times a day. 

  • Are there different types of seizures?

      There are several different types of seizures in children, including the following:

      Partial (focal) seizures 

      Partial seizures take place when abnormal electrical brain function occurs in one or more areas of one side of the brain. In about one-third of children with partial seizures, the child may experience an aura before the seizure occurs. An aura is a strange feeling, either consisting of visual changes, hearing abnormalities or changes in the sense of smell. Two types of partial seizures include the following:

      Simple partial seizures 

      The seizures typically last less than one minute. The child might show different symptoms depending on which area of the brain is involved. If the abnormal electrical brain function is in the occipital lobe (the back part of the brain that is involved with vision), the child's sight may be altered. The child's muscles are typically more commonly affected. The seizure activity is limited to an isolated muscle group, such as fingers, or to larger muscles in the arms and legs. Consciousness is not lost in this type of seizure. The child might also experience sweating or nausea or become pale.

      Complex partial seizures 

      This type of seizure commonly occurs in the temporal lobe of the brain, the area that controls emotion and memory function. This seizure usually lasts one to two minutes. Consciousness is usually lost during these seizures, and a variety of behaviors can occur. These behaviors can range from gagging, lip smacking, running, screaming, crying or laughing. When the child regains consciousness, he might complain of being tired or sleepy after the seizure. This is called the postictal period.

      Generalized seizures

      Generalized seizures involve both sides of the brain. There is loss of consciousness and a postictal state after the seizure occurs. Types of generalized seizures include the following:

      - Absence seizures (also called petit mal seizures)
      These seizures are characterized by a brief altered state of consciousness and staring episodes. Typically, the child's posture is maintained during the seizure. The mouth or face may move or the eyes may blink. The seizure usually lasts no longer than 30 seconds. When the seizure is over, the child might not recall what just occurred and might go on with his activities, acting as though nothing happened. These seizures can occur several times a day. This type of seizure is sometimes mistaken for a learning problem or behavioral problem. Absence seizures almost always start between ages 4 and 12.

      - Atonic (also called drop attacks) 

      With atonic seizures, there is a sudden loss of muscle tone, and the child can fall from a standing position or suddenly drop his head. During the seizure, the child is limp and unresponsive.

      Generalized tonic-clonic seizures (also called grand mal seizures) 

      This seizure is characterized by five distinct phases. The body, arms and legs will flex (contract), extend (straighten out), tremor (shake), a clonic period (contraction and relaxation of the muscles) occur and the postictal period will occur. During the postictal period, the child might be sleepy, have problems with vision or speech, and could have a bad headache, fatigue or body aches.

      Myoclonic seizures 

      This type of seizure refers to quick movements or sudden jerking of a group of muscles. These seizures tend to occur in clusters, meaning that they may occur several times a day, or for several days in a row.

      Infantile spasms 

      This rare type of seizure disorder can occur in infants anytime within the first two years of age. This seizure has a high occurrence rate when the child is waking, or when he is trying to go to sleep. The infant usually has brief periods of movement of the neck, trunk or legs that last for a few seconds. Infants can have hundreds of these seizures a day. This can be a serious problem, and can have long-term complications.

      Febrile seizures 

      This type of seizure is associated with fever. These seizures are more commonly seen in children between 6 months and 5 years of age, and there might be a family history of this type of seizure. Febrile seizures that last less than 15 minutes are called "simple," and they typically do not have long-term neurological effects. Seizures lasting more than 15 minutes are called "complex," and there might be long-term neurological changes in the child.

  • What causes a seizure?

      A child might experience one or many seizures. While the exact cause of the seizure might be unclear, the more common seizures are caused by the following:

      In newborns and infants:

      Birth trauma

      - Congenital (present at birth) problems

      - Fever

      - Metabolic or chemical imbalances in the body

      In children, adolescents and young adults:

      Alcohol or drugs

      - Trauma to the head

      - Infection

      - Unknown reasons

      Other possible causes:

      Brain tumor

      - Neurological problems such as drug withdrawal or medications

      Tuberous sclerosis complex

  • What are the symptoms of a seizure?

      A child might have varying degrees of symptoms depending on the type of seizure. The following are general symptoms of a seizure or warning signs that your child might be experiencing seizures. 

      Symptoms or warning signs can include:

      - Staring

      - Jerking movements of the arms and legs

      - Stiffening of the body

      - Loss of consciousness

      - Breathing problems or cessation

      - Loss of bowel or bladder control

      - Falling suddenly for no apparent reason

      - Not responding to noise or words for brief periods

      - Appearing confused or in a haze

      - Sleepiness and irritable upon waking in the morning

      - Nodding the head

      - Periods of rapid eye blinking and staring

      During the seizure, the child's lips might become bluish, and breathing might not be normal. The movements are often followed by a period of sleep or disorientation.

      The symptoms of a seizure may resemble other problems or medical conditions. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

  • What is epilepsy?

      Epilepsy is a neurological disease. Epilepsy happens when a person experiences sudden, reoccurring seizures. If your child has epilepsy, you're not alone. It is one of the most common disorders of the nervous system and affects people of all ages, races and ethnic backgrounds. 

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates about 467,711 children (0-17 years old) in the United States have epilepsy. Unlike adults, children and adolescents with seizure disorders undergo treatment during critical stages of their development.

      A person who has two or more seizures is considered to have epilepsy. There are many possible causes of epilepsy, including tumors, strokes, and brain damage from illness or injury. In many cases, there might be no detectable cause for epilepsy.


Video: What is a seizure?

What is a seizure?View

For some people, seizures only happen occasionally; for others, it may happen up to hundreds of times a day. See what happens in a brain to cause a seizure in someone who has epilepsy.

    • Driving: Check with your state to understand any laws about people with epilepsy or seizures operating a motor vehicle.
    • Activities: If a child has good control over the seizures, only minimal restrictions need to be placed on the child's activities. The child should always wear a helmet with sports and bike riding (including in-line roller-skating, hockey and skateboards). The child should also always have a buddy or adult supervision while swimming.