The human brain is a complex network of interconnected cells called neurons. Neurons are in constant communication with each other to direct nearly all body functions. If an area of the brain or a collection of neurons fires or “depolarizes” out of sequence, it can temporarily disrupt the brain’s normal electrical signals, which can manifest as a wide range of concerning symptoms or behaviors depending on which part of the brain is affected. The most common manifestation of this disruption is a generalized seizure with loss of consciousness, rigidity, and shaking of the limbs.
Seizures are somewhat common in infants and younger children. They can be caused by a wide range of things including infection, injury, or poor development. For many children with seizures, there is no obvious, detectable cause.
A child’s brain is still growing and developing, which also means that seizure activity can change as they grow up. Your child might be diagnosed with epilepsy if they have had two or more unprovoked seizures, or after a single seizure if they show evidence of high susceptibility to further seizures.
What Are Common Symptoms of a Seizure?
Children can have a wide range of seizure symptoms depending on the type of seizures. As noted, some symptoms of seizure are overt and obvious such as collapse or shaking.
Yet other types of seizures can affect children that manifest mild, barely noticeable symptoms. Some might involve only a visual hallucination, for example, or a moment of very strong emotions. In some cases, seizures have no overt physical signs at all.
Noticeable seizure signs in a child can include:
- Staring blankly
- Tremors in the limbs
- Convulsions or jerking movements in the limbs
- Rigidity or stiffening of the body
- Temporary loss of consciousness
- Rapid breathing
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Falling or fainting suddenly
- Failing to respond to noise or words for short periods of time
- Appearing confused or dazed
- Extreme sleepiness
- Irritability when waking up in the morning
- Head nodding or bobbing
- Bursts of rapid eye blinking and staring
- Uncontrollable vomiting
- Changes in vision, speech, or both
In some cases, these symptoms can have a cause other than seizures. Your child’s pediatrician can confirm suspected seizures or find another condition that is causing the symptoms.
Do Seizures Cause Brain Damage?
Brief seizures rarely cause any harm to the brain. For most, the greater risk comes from what you are doing at the time of the convulsion. For this reason, patients prone to seizures are advised not to swim alone, and to avoid adventurous high risk behavior.
While most seizures do not harm the child, some, especially those that are frequent, recurrent or severe, can be associated with long-term neurological conditions as well as problems with learning and behavior.
What To Do When A Child Has a Seizure
During the seizure, it is possible for a child to fall or be injured by objects in the surrounding environment, so it is important to stay with your child throughout the seizure event.
Try to gently ease the child to the floor and then turn them on their side. This is a wise safety measure in case of vomiting. You should then try to remove any surrounding hard objects. Seizures may leave your child exhausted. For many children, the physical complications of a seizure can also cause embarrassment, which might also lead to social isolation.
What Are the Different Types of Childhood Seizures?
- Febrile seizures – these are seizures in children under the age of six years associated with fever; these convulsions rarely require treatment and are often outgrown.
- Focal seizures – these are convulsions affecting one side of the body or one focal area of the brain.
- Generalized seizures – these are the classic convulsions associated with loss of consciousness, stiffness, and shaking of the limbs.
- Petit mal seizures – these are brief generalized seizures in which a child stares blankly, sometimes with blinking, but not with muscle stiffness or shaking. They commonly occur in school age children.
- Myoclonic seizures – from “myo” meaning muscle, and “clonus” meaning twitching these muscle jerks often occur while a patient is awake and can occur in any age group.
- Infantile spasms – an unusual jerk of the body most common in young infants.
- Status epilepticus – this is the medical term for an ongoing seizure that has not stopped.
Common Causes of Seizures in Children?
Seizures can manifest in different ways depending on the part of the brain where the abnormal electrical activity occurs. The conditions listed below lower the seizure threshold allowing for abnormal brain activity that results in a convulsion.
- Head injuries
- Birth trauma
- Severe infection
- Brain tumors
- Maternal illness during pregnancy
- Degenerative brain disorders
- Metabolic problems
- Chemical imbalances in the body
- Exposure to alcohol or drugs
How Are Seizures Diagnosed?
If your child has a seizure, you should contact your pediatrician. They will advise you on the best course of action. If possible try to note the following:
- The time the seizure starts and stops?
- Where in the body did the seizures start?
- Was the seizure activity localized in that part of the body or did it move to other areas?
- What type of movement did you observe?
- Could there be external factors that might have triggered your child’s seizure?
- Did your child experience anything unusual before the seizure started?
Your child’s physician will use a variety of diagnostic techniques to evaluate your child’s seizures, including:
- Blood tests to assess blood sugar, complete blood count, electrolytes, and liver and kidney function tests
- EEG to record electrical activity in your child’s brain.
Brain imaging tests with a CAT scan or MRI
A lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to see if an infection might be causing the seizures
Many of these tests can be performed on an outpatient basis. You might also need to test for problems that can accompany seizures, such as learning or behavior difficulties or depression. This may include specialized testing to monitor your child’s cognitive abilities, as well as their
learning development, general behavior, social skills, and overall emotional well-being.
How Are Seizures Treated?
If your child’s seizures are being triggered by another disease or injury, specialists experienced in treating that condition will work closely with epilepsy and seizure specialists to provide the best possible care for your child.
Most seizures in children fall into either the “febrile seizure” category or the “no known cause” category. The majority of these require no special treatment other than observation or more aggressive treatment of fevers.
When seizures recur, consideration is given to treatment with antiseizure medications. These can be very effective at reducing future seizures, but may be accompanied by side effects such as sedation. Therefore, medication treatment continues only until it is safe to remove the medication, usually two years after the last recorded seizure.
Your pediatrician will be happy to discuss any concerns you may have about your child and the risk of seizures.