A febrile seizure is a convulsion in young children that may be caused by a sudden 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.
Fortunately, febrile seizures aren't as dangerous as they may look. A seizure triggered by a fever is usually harmless and typically doesn't indicate a long-term or ongoing problem.
You may feel helpless during a febrile seizure, but you can make sure your child is safe during a seizure and offer comfort afterward. Following up with a doctor's visit is another good approach for handling a febrile seizure.
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:
Although a febrile seizure is usually caused by a rapid rise in your child's temperature, it can also occur when the fever is on its way down. And, the severity of the signs and symptoms doesn't necessarily reflect the level of the fever.
When to see doctor
Most febrile seizures occur because of a sudden spike in body temperature, and most occur during the first day of a fever. But a febrile seizure may also develop as the fever is declining.
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. Only a small percentage of children who have a febrile seizure go on to develop epilepsy, but not because of the febrile seizures.
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 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 at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
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. 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 five 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 day of an illness. Often, a febrile seizure occurs before parents realize that their child is ill.
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
But these medications all have drawbacks. They carry a definite risk of serious side effects in young children, such as sleep problems, irritability and hyperactivity. Doctors rarely prescribe these prevention medications because most febrile seizures are harmless and most children outgrow them without any problems.
Last Updated: 2010-01-05
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