March 15, 2005
Dr. Jonathan Wood, MD
In some children, fevers can trigger seizures. Febrile seizures occur in 2 percent to 5 percent of all children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years. Seizures, sometimes called "fits" or "spells," are frightening, but they usually are harmless.
Febrile seizures usually happen during the first few hours of a fever. The child may look strange for a few moments, then stiffen, twitch and roll his eyes. He or she will be unresponsive for a short time, breathing will be disturbed, and skin may appear a little darker than usual. After the seizure, the child quickly returns to normal. Seizures usually last less than one minute but, although uncommon, can last for up to 15 minutes.
Febrile seizures rarely happen more than once within a 24-hour period. Other kinds of seizures (ones that are not caused by fever) last longer, can affect only one part of the body, and may occur repeatedly.
If your child has a febrile seizure, act immediately to prevent injury.
Place your child on the floor or bed away from any hard or sharp objects.
Turn his or her head to the side so that any saliva or vomit can drain from the mouth.
Do not put anything into his or her mouth; your child will not swallow his or her tongue.
Call your pediatrician.
Febrile seizures tend to run in families. The risk of having seizures with other episodes of fever depends on the age of your child. Children younger than 1 year of age at the time of their first seizure have about a 50 percent chance of having another febrile seizure. Children older than 1 year of age at the time of their first seizure have only a 30 percent chance of having a second febrile seizure.
If your child has a febrile seizure, call your pediatrician right away. He or she will want to examine your child in order to determine the cause of your child's fever. It is more important to determine and treat the cause of the fever rather than the seizure. A spinal tap may be done to be sure your child does not have a serious infection like meningitis, especially if your child is younger than 1 year of age.
In general, physicians do not recommend treatment of a simple febrile seizure with preventive medications. However, this should be discussed with your pediatrician. In cases of prolonged or repeated seizures, the recommendation may be different.
Anti-fever drugs like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help lower a fever, but they do not prevent febrile seizures. Your pediatrician will talk to you about the best ways to take care of your child's fever.
Many parents fear that a febrile seizure will lead to epilepsy. Keep in mind that epilepsy is a term used for multiple and recurrent seizures. Epileptic seizures are not caused by fever. Children with a history of febrile seizures are at only a slightly higher risk of developing epilepsy by age 7 than children who have not had febrile seizures.
While febrile seizures may be very scary, they are harmless to the child. Febrile seizures do not cause brain damage, nervous system problems, paralysis, mental retardation or death. If you have concerns about this issue or anything related to your child's health, talk to your pediatrician.
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