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Febrile seizures

Written by Healthwords's team of doctors and pharmacists based in UK | Updated: 15.02.2023 | 3 min read
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A febrile seizure or convulsion is a fit that happens when some babies and toddlers have a fever. It can be alarming and scary, but it's usually harmless, and most children recover completely. It’s best to get your child checked out the first time this happens, so take them to the nearest hospital or call an ambulance if your child is having a seizure.

Those aged between 6 months and 3 years are most commonly affected. It doesn’t affect every child, but once they’ve had one febrile convulsion, they have a higher chance of having a seizure with the next feverish illness – the chance is about 1 in 3. It’s something that most children grow out of.

What causes febrile seizures?

There is no clear cause for febrile seizures. We know that it is linked to the start of a high temperature which any viral or bacterial infection can cause. There is also a genetic link, so there’s a slightly higher risk if a parent or sibling had them.

On very rare occasions, a seizure can occur after a vaccination.

What are the signs of a febrile seizure?

A febrile seizure is usually obvious to spot – you may get one or all of the possible signs; let’s talk you through them, so you know what to look out for.

You may notice their legs and arms become stiff and start to twitch, their eyes may roll back, they may have foaming at the mouth or have bitten their tongue, and they may be less responsive to you. These seizures typically last 5 minutes, and one can be sleepy for an hour or so afterward.

Complex febrile seizures are less common and are recognized as lasting longer and possibly just affecting one area of the body. They are slightly different than the usual febrile seizures, and they can reoccur within 24 hours.

What do I do if my child has a febrile seizure?

  1. Place them in the recovery position (semi-prone) on the floor or bed to keep them safe and allow saliva to drain from their mouth.
  2. Do not leave your child alone, and make a note of how long the seizure lasts.
  3. Do not put anything into your child’s mouth during a seizure, as they may choke.

Although it's unlikely to be anything serious, you should take your child to the nearest hospital or call 911 and ask for an ambulance if this is your child’s first seizure, it lasts more than 5 minutes, your child has difficulty breathing or you are concerned that there is something more going on.

Are there any complications of febrile seizures?

Febrile seizures have been linked to a small increased risk of epilepsy, where people have repeated seizures without a fever. The risk is about 1 in 50 and a bit higher – 1 in 20 – if the seizures are the complex type. This is compared to a 1 in 100 chance of developing epilepsy without any history of febrile seizures.

It can be distressing to see a febrile seizure, and you will want to do everything to keep your child safe and prevent them from happening in the future. Unfortunately, you can't prevent them; you can only keep your child feeling secure and calm when they occur. It's not understood why, but keeping tight control over a fever with medications doesn't seem to prevent febrile seizures if your child has a tendency towards them. But you can use acetaminophen or ibuprofen, as you usually would if your child has a high fever.

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