A febrile seizure is a convulsion in a child caused by a spike in body temperature, often from an infection. They occur in young children with normal development without a history of neurologic symptoms. It can be frightening when your child has a febrile seizure, and the few minutes it lasts can seem like an eternity. Fortunately, they're usually harmless and typically don't indicate a serious health problem.
Usually, a child having a febrile seizure shakes all over and loses consciousness. Sometimes, the child may get very stiff or twitch in just one area of the body. A child having a febrile seizure may:
- Have a fever higher than 38 C
- Lose consciousness
- Shake or jerk arms and legs
Febrile seizures are classified as simple or complex:
Simple febrile seizures. This most common type lasts from a few seconds to 15 minutes. Simple febrile seizures do not recur within a 24-hour period and are not specific to one part of the body.
Complex febrile seizures. This type lasts longer than 15 minutes, occurs more than once within 24 hours or is confined to one side of your child's body.
Febrile seizures most often occur within 24 hours of the onset of a fever and can be the first sign that a child is ill.
What to do during a seizure
- There is nothing you can do to make the seizure stop.
- The most important thing is to stay calm – don't panic.
- Place your child on a soft surface, lying on their side or back.
- Try to watch exactly what happens, so that you can describe it to the doctor later. It can be useful if you are able to record video footage of the seizure to show the doctor.
- Time how long the seizure lasts, if possible.
- Do not restrain your child.
- Do not put anything in their mouth, including your fingers. Your child will not choke or swallow their tongue.
- Do not put a child who is having a seizure in the bath to lower their temperature.
When to see a doctor
If your child’s febrile seizure lasts less than five minutes, make an appointment to see your GP as soon as possible to find out the cause of the fever that caused the seizure.
If the seizure was less than five minutes long and your child was very unwell before the seizure, take them to see your GP or visit to your nearest hospital emergency department immediately. It may be OK to take the child in your own car, but only do this if there are two adults – one to drive and one to look after the child. Drive very carefully. A few minutes longer will not make any important difference.
Call an ambulance immediately if:
- it is your child's first seizure
- the seizure lasts more than five minutes
- your child does not wake up when the seizure stops
- your child looks very sick when the seizure stops.
Occasionally, children who have had a long seizure need to be watched in hospital for a while afterwards. This is usually to work out the cause of the fever and watch the course of your child's illness.
Care at home
In most cases, you can look after your child at home after a doctor has seen them for a febrile seizure.
- Your child may be a little cranky for a day or so, but this will pass.
- Resume your usual routines.
- Put your child to sleep at the usual time, in his or her own bed. Don't worry about whether you will hear a seizure; a bed or cot is a safe place for a seizure.
- While most children will only ever have one febrile seizure, some children will have more than one seizure, usually during illnesses that cause a fever. Most children who have febrile seizures do not have any long-term health problems. They will normally grow out of them by the age of six.
- If your child has repeated long seizures, it may be helpful to visit a general pediatrician (specialist children's doctor). Discuss this with your GP or hospital emergency department.
Key points to remember
- One in 30 children have a febrile seizure at one time or another, usually between the ages of six months and six years.
- Nothing can be done to prevent a febrile seizure from occurring.
- During a seizure, remain calm and try not to panic. Do not put your child in a bath, restrain them, or put anything in their mouth.
- Febrile seizures are not harmful to your child, and will not cause brain damage.
- If the seizure lasts more than five minutes call an ambulance.
- If the seizure lasts less than five minutes and your child was very unwell before the seizure, take them to the GP or hospital emergency department as soon as possible. Otherwise, make an appointment to see your GP.