When a young child is sick with a fever, parents are naturally worried. And when their child’s arms and legs begin to shake due to a febrile seizure, it can be downright terrifying. But febrile seizures are not epilepsy, and are usually not harmful to your child.
Febrile seizures are uncontrollable body movements – known as convulsions. Some children are more likely to have febrile seizures than others. They are usually triggered by fever. To understand how a fever can cause convulsions, it helps to know a little bit about the brain.
Brain cells communicate with each other through electrical activity. Sometimes a burst of abnormal electrical signals can go to one or more parts of the brain. If something like a fever interrupts this normal electrical brain function for a short time, it can cause a seizure in some people.
Febrile seizures are a common childhood disorder. They usually happen in children between 6 months and 5 years of age. They are more common in boys, and they tend to run in families.
Children who have their first seizure when younger than age 1 have a 50 percent chance of having another febrile seizure. The chances of a child older than age 1 having a second febrile seizure are about 30 percent.
Anytime your child has a seizure, he or she should be evaluated by a doctor. While febrile seizures mostly harmless, the combination of a fever and a seizure may be a sign of another condition that needs medical attention.
Febrile seizures almost always happen to the entire body. The muscles become rigid. There is severe shaking of the child’s body, arms, and legs. Parents and caregivers should take steps to protect the child from injury.
- Move your child away from any sharp objects.
- Turn your child’s head to the side to prevent choking on saliva or vomit.
- Don’t put anything in your child’s mouth. He or she will not swallow their tongue.
- Call your child’s health care provider right away.
- Call 9-1-1 if the seizure doesn’t stop after 5 minutes or comes with a stiff neck, vomiting or breathing problems.
Most seizures stop on their own shortly after they begin. Afterward, a child may appear limp or sleepy.
Once a febrile seizure is over, take your child to see your health care provider. Your provider will want to check for other symptoms to make sure the seizure wasn’t caused by another problem.
The best way to prevent febrile seizures is to keep fevers under control. Check your child's temperature often during an illness. Treat fevers right away with over-the-counter infant or child fever medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Use these medications as directed by your child’s healthcare provider. Do not try to give medication to a child during a seizure.
Make sure your child drinks plenty of water or juice during an illness with fever. If your child cannot keep medicine down due to vomiting, your provider may recommend a sponge bath to cool your child’s body and help bring the fever down.
When to Call Your Health Care Provider
Call your health care provider if your child is younger than 3 months of age and the fever is 100-point-4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) or higher, or if your child has a fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) or higher no matter how old he or she is. Also call if your child:
- Your child has a seizure of any kind
- Is too sick to keep fluids down
- Has a fever that doesn’t go down with medications, or,
- Shows signs of dehydration, like a dry mouth or fewer wet diapers
What We Have Learned
Febrile seizures mean a child has an unusual or severe illness. True or False?
The answer is False. Febrile seizures usually happen during a normal childhood illness. However, all seizures should be checked out by your child’s health care provider.
Febrile seizures tend to run in families. True or False?
The answer is True. If you or another child in the family has a history of febrile seizures, your baby has a higher chance of having one.