My child has had an epileptic seizure

My child has had an epileptic seizure

Our brains think and control our bodies using electrical messages. An epileptic seizure happens when there is abnormal electrical activity in your child's brain. Most children who have one epileptic seizure will never have another one. 

Key points to remember

Although seizures can be frightening and awful to watch, most stop on their own.

  • children can have seizures for many reasons - they are not all epileptic seizures
  • an epileptic seizure happens when your child's brain has abnormal electrical activity that causes unusual movements, behaviour or funny feelings
  • although seizures can be frightening and awful to watch, most stop on their own
  • most children who have one epileptic seizure will never have another one
  • when children have more than one epileptic seizure, this may result in a diagnosis of epilepsy

What is an epileptic seizure?

Epileptic seizures happen when your child's brain has abnormal electrical activity

Our brains think and control our bodies using electrical messages. An epileptic seizure happens when there is abnormal electrical activity in your child's brain. This can cause unusual movements, behaviour or funny feelings. Normal brain function cannot continue until this abnormal electrical activity stops.

Seizures can be frightening but remember they will stop

Parents are often scared that their child is going to die when they have an epileptic seizure. Although seizures can be frightening and awful to watch, they will stop. It may seem like the epileptic seizure goes on forever but most epileptic seizures last less than 5 minutes. Epileptic seizures that last this long do not cause any brain damage.

There are many types of epileptic seizures

There are many different kinds of epileptic seizures. Some seizures are not obvious, with only blank staring for a few seconds. Epileptic seizures can also sometimes seem odd, with children having inappropriate behaviour or feeling very scared. Other epileptic seizures have obvious movements where one part or the whole body can go stiff and/or jerk violently.

Some older children may experience an unusual feeling of an 'aura' just before the start of a more obvious epileptic seizure. This feeling may be a funny smell, a headache, a taste in their mouth or a stomach pain. If they have an 'aura' before their seizure they may have time to tell you how they feel or be able to lie on the floor so they are less likely to injure themselves.

When should I seek help?

If you think your child has had an epileptic seizure for the first time, you should see a doctor urgently.

Dial 111 within New Zealand (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries) and ask for urgent medical help if your child:

  • has an epileptic seizure that lasts more than 5 minutes
  • has 2 or more seizures in a row without waking properly between them
  • has had a head injury, or another injury during the seizure

For more information about what to do when your child has a seizure, see Seizure first aid.

Will my child need tests and investigations?

A boy being prepared for an EEG.

If your doctor thinks your child has had an epileptic seizure, they will contact the paediatric department at your local hospital. The hospital doctor who sees your child may arrange for some tests.

Electroencephalogram or EEG

If your child has had an epileptic seizure they may need an electroencephalogram (EEG). An EEG is a recording of their brain's electrical activity. Your child can have an EEG as an outpatient. They don't need to stay in hospital. See the EEG page.

Boy about to have an MRI with his brother and the radiologist looking on.

Magnetic resonance imaging or MRI

Your child may also need an MRI scan to look at the structure of the brain. Whether your child needs an MRI will depend on the type of seizure they have and the results of the EEG. See the MRI page.

Will my child have another epileptic seizure?

Most children who have one epileptic seizure will never have another one. Investigations such as an EEG or MRI can give an indication of how likely another seizure will be.

If your child has more than one epileptic seizure, this may lead to a diagnosis of epilepsy. There are many different types of epilepsy.

Do I need to do anything differently after my child has had a seizure?

Treat your child normally, just as you did before they had an epileptic seizure. 

It is important to treat your child normally, just as you did before they had an epileptic seizure. But, there are some situations where having a seizure could be dangerous. For 6 months after your child has had a seizure, there are some extra things you should do to help keep them safe.

Showers are safer than baths

If your child has a bath, someone should be in the room with them to help them if they have another seizure. For older children, that might mean leaving the bathroom door slightly open and someone talking to them from the other side of the door. If they have a shower, leave the door unlocked. 

Take extra care when swimming

Swimming is an important skill to learn for all children. But, if your child has had a seizure, it is important to take extra care near water. There should be someone who is watching your child closely while they are in the water at all times. The person should be close enough (and have the skills) to be able to get your child out of the water if they have a seizure.

Wear a helmet while on a bike

Your child should always wear a helmet while on a bike. Biking on the footpath is fine but they should not bike on the road.

Avoid climbing trees

Your child should avoid climbing trees. Playing in a playground is fine as even children without seizures fall off this equipment. People design playgrounds with safety in mind. 

What should I do if my child has another seizure?

See Seizure first aid.

If your child has another seizure but has fully recovered, you don't usually need to call a doctor immediately or call an ambulance.

Do tell your family doctor that your child has had another seizure. Your family doctor can then tell the specialists. Your child may need investigations earlier than first planned. After the investigations, your doctors will talk with you about whether medication is a good idea.

Who can I contact for more information or help?

Epilepsy New Zealand has educators who can answer any questions you may have and can act as a support person for you. You can contact your local educator at 0800 37 45 37.

The content on this page has been developed and approved by the Paediatric Neurology Clinical Network, Paediatric Society New Zealand.

This page last reviewed 27 March 2018.
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