Are febrile seizures dangerous?

Febrile seizures are convulsions that occur as the result of fever, especially during infancy and early childhood. 

Febrile seizures are most common in children between 6 months and 5 years of age, especially toddlers. Of the estimated 2 to 5 percent of children who experience a febrile seizure, one-third will suffer a recurrence. The older a child is when the first seizure occurs, the less likely he is to have another seizure. Risk factors for recurrence include: having a first seizure before 15 months of age, having frequent fevers, family history of seizures, and experiencing a seizure in response to a relatively mild fever. 

Although such “fits” or “spells” are often harmless and without long-term health consequences, their sudden and unexpected occurrence make them frightening for parents and caregivers. At onset, your child may stiffen, twitch, roll his eyes, and become unresponsive. He may moan, cry, fall, wet himself, or vomit. His body may jerk rhythmically. The whole episode typically lasts 1 to 2 minutes, although your affected child may be drowsy or confused afterward.

If your child has a febrile seizure, act quickly to prevent injury. 

  • Move your child only if he is in a dangerous spot where he could be hurt during the seizure. 
  • Remove all nearby objects, especially hard or sharp items. 
  • Loosen tight clothing; open or remove clothing above the waist if possible (but don’t try to pull anything over your child’s head). 
  • Turn his head to the side, so that saliva or vomit can exit the mouth. 
  • Keep objects clear of his mouth. (Any object put into the mouth might be broken and become a choking hazard. Don’t worry; he won’t choke on his tongue.) 
  • Don’t try to restrain your child. 
  • If the seizure continues for 5 or more minutes, call 911. 
  • Call your child’s doctor for followup care as soon as the seizure ends.

Even if your child’s seizure resolves quickly, he should be seen by a doctor in order to determine the cause of the fever—especially if he also has a stiff neck, extreme fatigue, or vomiting. 

In accord with recent guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), your child’s doctor may recommend a spinal tap to check for a serious or life-threatening infection, such as meningitis. 

Acetaminophen or ibuprofen may help ease your child’s illness-related discomfort, but these medications do not reduce the risk of febrile seizures. (Note: Do not give your child aspirin when he has a fever, as this may cause a rare but serious reaction known as Reye’s syndrome.) 

It may be hard to stay calm when your child experiences a seizure, but that is the best thing you can do for him. Once it is over, comfort your child. Offer a glass of water. He may be fatigued or confused, but don’t expect him to remember what’s happened. Call his doctor for a followup visit as soon as possible, but rest assured that these occurrences are usually harmless.

Last updated August 22, 2017

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