The brain has billions of nerve cells, called neurons, that use electrical and chemical signals to control how we move, act and feel. A seizure happens when a person's brain is overloaded by too many electrical and chemical signals being sent at the same time.
Some doctors describe a seizure as a "storm in the brain." During a seizure, a child can experience temporary changes in movements, actions or feelings.
Some signs of seizures are easier to recognize than others. "When most people hear about epilepsy and seizures, they may picture the 'typical' type of seizure, or a convulsive seizure," says Susan Arnold, M.D., Director of the Level 4 Epilepsy Center at Children's Medical Center Dallas and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. "However, there are many different types of seizures, and some, like staring seizures, are not as easy to recognize."
What is an absence seizure?
Absence seizures (also called petit mal seizures) are common in children with epilepsy. However, they can be easy to miss and go undiagnosed for a long time. Absence seizures are generally not harmful, and many children outgrow them by puberty. However, about 10% of children may develop other seizure types later in life. It's important to talk to your child's doctor right away if you are concerned they are experiencing any type of seizure.
During an absence seizure, a child may look like they are staring into space and not paying attention – a common childhood behavior – but if they are having a seizure, the child is not aware of what is happening and will have trouble remembering things.
There are other types of 'staring seizures' including focal epilepsy, where staring is more obvious and tends to last much longer. "Afterwards, kids can be much more confused, causing more disruption to the child's day," says Dr. Arnold. These may happen only once a week, once a month or less.
What are signs of absence seizures?
During an absence seizure, a child may experience a short break in awareness and consciousness where they stare into space and do not process what is happening. Because the seizures tend to be short, 30 seconds or less, it can be easy for a parent or teacher to miss the occurrence or mistake it for a child who is daydreaming.
Symptoms of absence seizures in children include:
- Staring in a daze
- Eyelids flutter, roll or blink quickly
- Chewing, even if there is nothing in the mouth
- Mumbling or having trouble talking
Children with absence seizures can experience seizure multiple times a day. Most children aren't aware of when they experience an absence seizure. It may cause the child's eyelids to flutter, roll or blink quickly, or the child may make a smacking sound with their lips.
If you see your child staring and suspect your child is having a seizure, you can stand in front of your child and touch them to see if they respond. This helps determine if they are having a seizure or if they are just not paying attention. You can also say something to your child and then ask them to repeat what you just said. If your child was just not paying attention, they can still usually recall what you said, but if they had a seizure, the child will not be aware of what you are asking.
First aid for absence seizures
Absence seizures aren't usually associated with falling or injury and because of this, they usually don't require emergency medical attention. A child who experiences this type of seizure may be confused, may be in an unsafe place or may not know what they are doing. Help your child through the seizure by following these steps for absence seizure first aid.
- Time the seizure, from start to finish
- Remain calm and reassure your child
- Don't grab or hold your child
- Explain to others around you what is happening
- Remove or block any hazards that may harm your child
Although absence seizures generally don't cause any damage to the brain, there are activities your child may want to participate in that can be dangerous. Talk to your child's doctor about how to keep your child safe.
Designated as a Level 4 Epilepsy Center by the National Association of Epilepsy Centers, Children's Medical Center Dallas provides the highest level of treatment for the most complex cases of pediatric epilepsy, with additional advanced epilepsy treatment options available at our Level 3 Epilepsy Center in Plano. Learn more about our Pediatric Epilepsy Center at Children's Health℠.
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