A febrile seizure is a convulsion in young children that may be caused by a spike in body temperature, often from an infection. Watching your child experience a febrile seizure can be alarming. And, although a febrile seizure may last only a few minutes, it may seem like an eternity to you.
Febrile seizures represent a unique response of a young child's brain to fever. Fortunately, febrile seizures aren't as dangerous as they may look. They're usually harmless and typically don't indicate a long-term or ongoing problem. You can help your child by keeping him or her safe during a febrile seizure and offering comfort afterward.
After a febrile seizure, call your doctor to have your child evaluated as soon as possible.
Febrile seizure symptoms can range from mild — rolling of the eyes — to more severe shaking or tightening of the muscles.
A child having a febrile seizure may:
Febrile seizures are classified as simple or complex:
Febrile seizures most often occur as the body temperature quickly rises, usually within 24 hours of the onset of a fever, and can be the first sign that a child is ill.
When to see doctor
Call for an ambulance to take your child to the emergency room if the seizure lasts longer than 10 minutes or is accompanied by:
Most febrile seizures occur because of a sudden spike in body temperature, and most occur during the first day of a fever.
Viral or bacterial infection
Several risk factors have been identified that increase your child's likelihood of experiencing a febrile seizure. These include:
Although febrile seizures may cause great fear and concern for parents, most febrile seizures produce no lasting effects. Simple febrile seizures don't cause brain damage, mental retardation or learning disabilities, and they don't mean your child has a more serious underlying disorder.
Febrile seizures also aren't an indication of epilepsy, a tendency to have recurrent seizures caused by abnormal electrical signals in the brain. The odds that your child will develop epilepsy after a febrile seizure are small, approximately 1 percent.
Recurrent febrile seizures
The risk of recurrence is higher if:
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by first seeing your child's family doctor or pediatrician. However, you may then be referred to a doctor who specializes in disorders of the brain and nervous system (neurologist).
Because appointments can be brief, and there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to arrive well prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and know what to expect from your child's doctor.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of the time with your child's doctor. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For febrile seizures, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
Simple febrile seizures
Complex febrile seizures
Tests and diagnosis
After experiencing a febrile seizure, your child will likely have:
These tests can help determine possible causes of the fever and seizure.
If your doctor suspects a central nervous system infection, a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) may be necessary. In this procedure, a doctor inserts a needle into your child's lower back to remove a small amount of spinal fluid. This test can reveal evidence of infection in the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.
Further tests such as an electroencephalogram (EEG) — a test that measures brain activity — may be necessary if your child had a complex febrile seizure.
Treatments and drugs
It's not necessary to lower your child's fever to stop a febrile seizure. So don't try to give your child fever medications during a seizure, due to a risk of choking. For the same reason, don't place your child in a cooling tub of water. It's much more practical, more comfortable — and safer — for your child to remain lying on the carpet or a bed.
Most febrile seizures stop on their own within a couple of minutes. If your child has a febrile seizure that lasts more than 10 minutes — or if your child has repeated seizures — call for emergency medical attention.
If the seizure is prolonged or accompanied by a serious infection or if the source of the infection can't be determined, your doctor may want your child to stay in the hospital for further observation. But a hospital stay isn't routinely necessary for simple febrile seizures.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If your child has a febrile seizure, stay calm and follow these steps to help your child during the seizure:
If possible, try to time the seizure using your watch or a clock. Because they're so alarming, seizures often seem to last longer than they really do. Also try to note which part of your child's body begins to shake first, and look for other signs of illness. This can help your doctor understand the cause of the seizure.
Not long after having a febrile seizure, many children are back on their feet, running around the doctor's office or playing safely at home. By staying calm, observing your child and knowing when to call the doctor, you're doing everything that's needed to take care of your child.
Most of the time, a febrile seizure occurs the first few hours of a fever, during the initial rise in body temperature.
Giving your child medications
Additionally, there's always a question of safety when giving medications to young children. For example, aspirin may trigger a rare but potentially fatal disorder known as Reye's syndrome. And, while acetaminophen is generally safe, if you give a child too much, it can cause liver failure. Ask your doctor what medications he or she recommends and what the proper dosage is for your child's age and weight.
Making sure your child drinks plenty of fluids and is appropriately dressed — not overdressed — may help control the fever.
Prescription prevention medications
Rescue or abortive medications, such as oral diazepam (Valium), lorazepam intensol or clonazepam (Klonopin), are often prescribed. These are administered only with subsequent seizures and generally only if the seizure persists longer than three to five minutes or if there are a cluster of seizures. Rectal diazepam (Diastat) also can reduce the risk of febrile seizures if taken at the time of a fever.
Last Updated: 2012-01-24
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