Epilepsy in children is a condition that causes seizures. This happens when there’s unregulated electrical activity in your child’s brain. A seizure may cause temporary, uncontrolled muscle movements (convulsions) and a loss of consciousness. Some children may stare off into space and experience confusion until the seizure is over.
Epilepsy in children is a brain condition that causes seizures. The cells in your child’s brain create a sudden burst of irregular electrical activity and a seizure is the result. You may recognize a seizure when someone passes out and their body shakes uncontrollably. But not all seizures look the same. Some children may stare or experience confusion during a seizure.
While epilepsy causes seizures, not all seizures are the result of epilepsy in children. To receive an epilepsy diagnosis, a healthcare provider will examine whether your child has more than one seizure that isn’t caused by an underlying medical condition.
You might hear your child’s healthcare provider refer to their condition as pediatric epilepsy or seizure disorder.
There are several types of epilepsy in children. Some of the most commonly diagnosed include:
Over 3 million people in the United States have epilepsy, and over 450,000 are under 17 years old.
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Seizures are the main symptom of epilepsy in children. Some of the first signs of a seizure may include:
A seizure can happen quickly, sometimes, without any signs before it begins.
Symptoms of epilepsy in children during a seizure only lasts for a few minutes and include:
Seizures can look different from person to person, and they don’t always involve uncontrolled muscle movements. Most people experience the same or similar symptoms with each seizure.
It can be difficult to recognize a seizure in infants compared to older children. As a child’s caregiver, note any unusual behaviors and how long they last and talk to your child’s healthcare provider.
After a seizure, your child may feel tired or confused about what just happened. They might not have any memory of the seizure happening until it stops. Headaches are common after seizures.
The age when epilepsy in children starts varies based on what type of epilepsy your child has. Some symptoms begin during infancy, while others begin during school-age or teenage years.
Uncontrolled electrical activity in your child’s brain causes epilepsy in children. Electricity passes between brain cells. It helps cells communicate. Sometimes, the electricity between cells becomes irregular and temporarily changes the messages sent between brain cells. This irregularity causes temporary symptoms of a seizure until your child’s brain is able to resend the correct messages to other cells in their brain.
Possible causes of epilepsy in children include:
Sometimes, there’s no clear cause of epilepsy and it can happen sporadically or randomly. Research is ongoing to learn more about what causes epilepsy in children.
Your child may be more at risk of experiencing epilepsy if they had or have:
Epilepsy in children can affect their overall physical and mental health. Common complications of epilepsy in children may include:
Injuries are common during a seizure, especially if your child loses consciousness and falls. If you notice signs of a seizure, make sure you get your child to a safe place, like lying them down away from hard surfaces, sharp or heavy objects or things that could fall, until the seizure is over. Place something soft, like a shirt or jacket, beneath their head during the seizure and don’t try to hold them or stop their body from moving. The seizure should only last for a few minutes. Ask your healthcare provider how to handle any seizure that lasts longer than five minutes.
Some types of epilepsy are more severe, and symptoms can be life-threatening. Severe complications may include:
Your healthcare provider will help your child manage their symptoms to prevent possible life-threatening complications with treatment. Research is ongoing and advances in treatment can decrease your child’s risk of complications.
A healthcare provider will diagnose epilepsy in children after examinations and testing that may include:
Tests help your healthcare provider understand what caused your child’s seizures and rule out conditions that cause them. An epilepsy diagnosis may take time and it usually doesn’t happen overnight.
Treatment for epilepsy in children may include:
Children may respond differently to treatment, so what works for one child may vary from the next. It may take trying a few different types of treatment before your child’s care team finds one that works best for them.
If your child is taking medicine for epilepsy, you can work with their healthcare provider to make sure they’re taking the medicine correctly. Some things to be attentive to include:
Possible side effects vary from drug to drug, but some antiseizure medications may cause the following:
Ask your care provider which side effects are possible with the drug that your child is taking. Side effects may decrease after your child’s body adjusts to the medication over time. If your child experiences side effects, talk to their care team to make sure the medication is right for your child.
There isn’t a way to prevent all causes of epilepsy. You can help your child reduce their risk of developing epilepsy by preventing head injuries. This may include having your child wear protective gear when they play sports or participate in certain activities. If you’re pregnant, you can make sure you have the care you need before your due date to prevent birth injuries. Even if you’re well protected, accidents that lead to head trauma can still happen.
Your child’s healthcare provider can help you learn more about your child’s prognosis, as they vary based on what type of epilepsy your child has and the frequency of their seizures. An early diagnosis and starting treatment quickly can lead to the best outcome. While rare, some seizures can be life-threatening and lead to unexpected death.
Over 60% of children outgrow epilepsy before they reach adulthood. Others may have to manage the condition for their entire life. Certain types of epilepsy are more likely to be outgrown than others.
Most children with epilepsy have a relatively unaffected or “normal” life in the same way that their peers do. About 70% of children diagnosed with epilepsy don’t experience any changes to their development or their day-to-day activities. The only difference they might experience is that they need to take medication regularly.
It’s common for children diagnosed with epilepsy to feel frustrated, embarrassed or like an outsider because they believe their condition makes them stand out in a negative way. Epilepsy often leads to low self-esteem, depression and anxiety. Many children find comfort in speaking with a mental health professional about their emotional well-being. They also benefit from the love and support of their caregivers and medical care team to combat possible complications of the condition.
Some children benefit from changes to their diet as a way to manage their symptoms of epilepsy. The ketogenic diet (keto diet) is an eating pattern high in fats and low in carbohydrates. Your healthcare provider may recommend your child participate in this meal plan because it may change how your child’s brain gets and uses energy.
Your provider will let you know if you need to adjust what your child eats.
As a caregiver of a child with epilepsy, you may have concerns regarding their safety in the event of an unexpected seizure. Many of the things you can do to keep your child safe are also things other children who don’t have epilepsy may benefit from as well. Your child’s healthcare provider will let you know if certain sports or activities are safe for your child to do. Most activities are safe if your child’s seizures are well-managed.
Keep in mind the following when caring for your child:
Here are some water safety tips to keep in mind if you’re caring for a child with epilepsy:
If your child has a seizure while swimming, get them out of the water as soon as possible and check their breathing and pulse. If anything seems wrong, contact their healthcare provider or emergency services right away.
Contact your child’s healthcare provider if they experience:
Call 911 or local emergency services or go to the emergency room when your child:
Status epilepticus is a dangerous condition that happens when your child has seizures that last a long time or has multiple seizures without recovery time between each one. This is a life-threatening emergency and needs immediate medical attention.
For prolonged seizures, special “rescue medications” can be given by caregivers (like parents or teachers), either rectally or by nasal spray. Ask your child’s healthcare provider if having rescue medication on hand would be appropriate for your child.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Caring for a child is challenging, but you may face more challenges caring for a child diagnosed with epilepsy. It’s normal to feel frustrated, confused and concerned about what your child is going through. Your child’s healthcare providers will work with you to help you understand the condition and how you can help your child as they grow. Contact your child’s care team if you have any questions about their diagnosis or if you see any side effects or new or worsening symptoms. Research is ongoing to help children manage epilepsy with few interruptions in their daily lives so they can have fulfilling childhoods.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/05/2023.
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