Epilepsy is the name for a range of brain conditions. Children with these brain conditions have or are at risk of having repeated seizures without a reason.
Seizures happen when electrical activity in the brain is disturbed. This results in changes to children’s awareness, thinking, behaviour, body movements or senses.
If a child has one seizure, it doesn’t always mean they have epilepsy. Most children who have a single seizure don’t have any more. Epilepsy isn’t usually diagnosed until after 2 or more seizures.
Epilepsy causes, risk factors and triggers
Several conditions are associated with epilepsy. These include:
- genetic conditions
- developmental and behavioural conditions like intellectual disability and autism
- disorders linked with large structural changes in the brain like cerebral palsy or hydrocephalus
- cortical dysplasia
- acquired brain injury, brain infection, tumour or stroke.
Epilepsy is more likely in children whose immediate family members also have epilepsy.
Triggers like sleep deprivation, fever and illness can lead to seizures in children with certain kinds of epilepsy. Flickering lights are a very rare trigger.
Febrile seizures are seizures triggered by fever. If your child has a febrile seizure and is otherwise healthy and you have no family history of epilepsy, the risk of developing epilepsy is only slightly higher than for any other child.
Types of epileptic seizures and their symptoms
There are many different types of seizures, which fall into two main groups – focal seizures and generalised seizures.
Focal seizures start in one part or on one side of the brain. Symptoms of a focal seizure depend on what part of the brain is affected.
Symptoms of focal seizures might include:
- muscle twitching in one part of the body
- changes to smells, sounds, tastes and sight
- difficulty talking
- abnormal behaviour and movements like picking at clothing or lip smacking.
A child’s awareness or responsiveness might change if they’re having a focal seizure.
Generalised seizures start on both sides of the brain at once. There are several different types of generalised seizures, and they have different symptoms:
- Tonic seizures cause children’s muscles to stiffen. They often happen during sleep.
- Atonic seizures cause muscle weakness. Children’s heads might slump forward, or they might fall to the ground in a ‘drop attack’.
- Clonic seizures cause muscles to repeatedly jerk and relax.
- Myoclonic seizures cause a sudden, very brief muscle jerk.
- Tonic-clonic seizures start with the body stiffening, then jerking movements develop. The body becomes less stiff as the jerking goes on. Children lose awareness and fall down.
- Absence seizures involve a sudden loss of awareness. Children stare and don’t respond to touch or voice. These seizures last only a few seconds.
Management of epileptic seizures
If you think your child is having a seizure and has lost consciousness, it’s important to stay calm. Make sure your child is in a safe place, and remove any harmful objects so your child doesn’t injure themselves.
If it’s your child’s first seizure, watch exactly what happens, so you can describe it later. If you have a smartphone or camera, take a video of the seizure.
Time the seizure.
Once the seizure has stopped, place your child on a soft surface, lying in the recovery position on their side to keep their airway open. Stay with your child and comfort them until they recover.
Does your child need to see a doctor about epileptic seizures?
It’s important for your child to see a GP or go to a hospital emergency department if your child:
- hasn’t had a seizure before
- has several or repeated seizures
- starts having seizures more often than usual.
Phone 000 and ask for an ambulance if a seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes.
Tests for epilepsy
If your GP thinks your child might have epilepsy, the GP will usually refer your child to a paediatrician or neurologist for further investigation.
The doctor might order blood tests and an EEG. Your doctor might also organise an MRI scan of your child’s brain.
Treatment for epilepsy
Epilepsy treatment aims to let children live an active and independent life.
If your child is diagnosed with epilepsy, your doctor will discuss with you whether your child should take antiseizure medicine.
If your doctor prescribes antiseizure medicine for your child, the doctor will let you know whether there might be some side effects to watch out for. If your child is taking antiseizure medicine, they’ll need to see a doctor regularly.
If medicine doesn’t work, your doctor might talk with you about other treatments, including a ketogenic diet or surgical options.
If your child has severe, prolonged or frequent seizures, your doctor might give you an emergency medication management plan.
An epilepsy support organisation can help you to develop an epilepsy management plan for child care, school or anyone else who might be caring for your child. This can help your child’s carers understand your child’s epilepsy, including what to expect if your child has a seizure, how to manage it and who to call.
Prevention of epileptic seizures
Make sure your child takes their antiseizure medicine regularly.
Your child should avoid anything that might trigger a seizure. For example, if your child’s seizures are triggered by a lack of sleep, it’s important that your child has a regular sleep schedule. If your child’s seizures are triggered by flickering light, ask your doctor how to avoid this.
Your doctor will tell you what safety precautions your child needs to take when they go swimming, have a bath or do activities that involve heights.
Watching your child having a seizure can be very distressing. Talking to other parents can be a great way to get support and feel less fearful about your child’s condition. You can connect with other parents in similar situations by joining a face-to-face or online support group.