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Absence Seizures

What Is a Seizure?

A seizure (SEE-zhur) is unusual electrical activity in the brain. Normally, electrical activity in the brain involves neurons (nerve cells) in different areas sending signals at different times. During a seizure, many neurons fire all at once.

Depending on where in the brain the seizure happens, it causes changes in behavior, movement, or feelings. A seizure that affects both sides of the brain is called generalized. A seizure that involves only one side of the brain is called focal.

What Is an Absence Seizure?

An absence seizure is a type of generalized seizure. During this type of seizure, the person is not aware of what is going on around them.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of an Absence Seizure?

Someone who is having an absence seizure suddenly stops what they are doing and stares into space. They also might:

  • open and close their lips subtly or make chewing motions
  • rub their fingers together
  • flutter their eyelids

Someone can have many absence seizures in a day. They don’t remember having the seizures, but older kids may realize that they lost time around them. These seizures often may be mistaken for daydreaming or inattention.

What Happens After an Absence Seizure?

Absence seizures usually last about 20 seconds. After the seizure, most children return to what they were doing just before the seizure started as if nothing happened. But they won't recall what just happened, or if someone talked to them during the seizure. Rarely, a child might feel confused or tired, have a headache, or have other symptoms. This is called the postictal (post-IK-tul) phase. It usually lasts just a few minutes, but can be longer. This phase can happen if a child has many absence seizures in one day or they happen too close together.

What Causes an Absence Seizure?

Absence seizures are thought to be genetic, though a child might not always have a family member who has seizures or epilepsy. Sometimes seizures are from gene mutations.

Anyone can get absence seizures, but they are more likely in:

  • children ages 4–14 years
  • people who have a family member with absence seizures
  • girls

How Are Absence Seizures Diagnosed?

If your child had a seizure, the doctor probably will want you to see a pediatric neurologist (a doctor who treats brain, spine, and nervous system problems). The neurologist will ask questions about what happened during the seizure, do an exam, and order an EEG to measure brain wave activity.

How Are Absence Seizures Treated?

Doctors treat absence seizures with anti-seizure medicines. For some children, untreated seizures can get worse over time and may affect learning, development, or behavior. Most children can get complete seizure control by taking the medicine.

About 60% of children outgrow absence seizures in their teens, especially if medicine has worked well to control their seizures. Those who don't outgrow them might have seizures into adulthood, but medicine can help control these.

What Problems Can Happen?

Absence seizures are brief, and usually do not lead to any physical injury. In rare cases, though, some children can have whole-body convulsions. This can happen if a child has many absence seizures in one day or many seizures close together. Learning and behavior problems also can happen. Talk to your child's neurologist if you have concerns about these problems.  

How Can Parents Help?

Your doctor will help you create a plan for your child and talk to you about:

  • what medicines your child should take
  • if any “triggers” (such as fever, lack of sleep, or medicines) can make a seizure more likely
  • any precautions your child should take while swimming or bathing
  • whether your child should wear a medical ID bracelet
  • if it’s OK for your teen to drive
  • how to keep your child safe during a seizure. Share this information with caregivers, coaches, and staff at your child’s school.

If your child has another seizure, keep a record of:

  • when it happened
  • how long it lasted
  • what happened right before the seizure
  • what happened during and after the seizure

This information will help the doctor find the best treatment for your child’s seizures.

What Else Should I Know?

If your child has seizures, reassure them that they’re not alone. Your doctor and the care team can answer questions and offer support. They also might be able to recommend a local support group. Online organizations can help too, such as:

Reviewed by: Lily Tran, MD, Andrew I. Mower, MD
Date Reviewed: 01-02-2022

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