In this section
Epilepsy is a brain
disorder which leads to a person having repeated epileptic seizures or fits. During seizures, there is uncontrollable electrical activity in nerve cells in the brain The electrical activity causes the person to convulse, fall, stare or behave strangely.
One child in
20 (or 5 per cent) will have at least one seizure during their childhood, often associated with a high temperature (a febrile convulsion). Single seizures, febrile convulsions and seizures during acute illnesses are not considered epilepsy. Less than five per cent of children who have febrile convulsions go on to develop epilepsy. Epilepsy with repeated, unprovoked seizures occurs in about one in 200 children (or 0.5 per cent).
Epileptic seizures are not usually dangerous. However, a person is at risk if they are in a dangerous environment when a seizure occurs, e.g. swimming in a pool, driving a car, climbing a ladder, handling hot liquids, and they lose consciousness or convulse. Children with epilepsy can usually lead a normal and active life, but need to take care with certain activities such as swimming and bathing.
The symptoms of seizures
depend on what parts of the brain are affected. What happens during
a seizure lets doctors know about what parts of the brain are
Signs and symptoms of seizures
There are many different types
of seizures and they can be generally classified into two
Focal seizures happen
when the seizure activity begins in one part of the brain. If there is convulsing, it usually affects one side of the body. Focal seizures may also appear as your child just staring and being unresponsive. Focal seizures can spread in the brain and become "secondarily generalised". Focal seizures with any loss of consciousness are often referred to by doctors as "complex partial" or "focal dyscognitive" seizures, not absence seizures.
Generalised seizures happen when the seizure
activity begins all over the brain at once. The person's conscious state and movement are always affected. There are different types of generalised seizures, including tonic-clonic, absence, myoclonic, atonic and tonic seizures.
Infantile spasms are a special type of seizure with both focal and generalised features.
It is important that your child's
epilepsy is correctly diagnosed and treated by a children's doctor
(paediatrician) or a doctor who specialises in childhood disorders
of the brain (paediatric neurologist). To make a correct diagnosis, the
doctor will need a detailed description of your child's
seizures, medical history, development, learning and behaviour. A
home video recording of your child's seizures is very helpful if
seizures happen often or are predictable.
Special tests are needed in
some children with epilepsy. Your child's doctor will talk to you
about the following tests if they are needed.
Most children who have only
one seizure are not diagnosed with epilepsy and are not treated with antiepileptic medication.
If your child has
repeated seizures, your doctor may prescribe
antiepileptic medication to help prevent further seizures. There are
many different medications used for epilepsy. The medication
prescribed will depend on:
It is important
that you do not suddenly stop any medication your child is
taking for epilepsy. Doing so may cause a severe or prolonged seizure to
Medication is usually taken one to three times daily to prevent
further seizures, but occasionally medication is prescribed to treat
seizures as they happen. These include giving medications in the nose (intranasal midazolam), in the mouth (buccal midazolam), or up the bottom (rectal valium).
In about one in five children (or 20 per cent) with epilepsy, seizures are not controlled with medication and other treatments may be considered. These treatment options include a ketogenic
surgery or vagus nerve
Children with epilepsy that
is controlled (i.e. not having seizures while on medication) should
be encouraged to live a normal and active life.
You should know what to do
and how to help when your child has a seizure. Any adult looking
after your child should be aware of their seizures and what
If your child has been
diagnosed with epilepsy some precautions will need to be taken to
ensure your child is safe. They include the
Occasionally, seizures can be prolonged or complicated by serious breathing difficulties or aspiration (breathing vomit or other fluids into the lungs). Rarely, children can die unexpectedly from a seizure during sleep. This is called SUDEP, or sudden unexpected death in epilepsy. SUDEP is rare in most forms of epilepsy that affect children, especially if the child is taking regular antiepileptic medication and their seizures are controlled. There are some types of seizures and some associated neurological conditions where the risk is greater. Your child's doctor will discuss these risks with you, and further information can be found from the Epilepsy Foundation of Victoria or SUDEP Aware.
Your child's doctor will give you advice about any other activities your child should not do, and for how long.
consultation with the Royal Children's Hospital (RCH) Neuroscience
Centre. Many thanks to the parents who helped with this
fact sheet. First published January 2006. Updated May 2015.