Common Seizure Triggers in Infants and Children

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Whether your child has just had his first seizure or several, you are understandably worried. They’re scary to watch and can seem catastrophic. Parents have explained to me that when they occur at night, they don’t get much sleep because they’re worried about leaving their child alone. Similarly, during the day parents have mentioned that they won’t send their child to school until she has been seen by their doctor or an epilepsy specialist.

These are all normal, understandable reactions, but as parents’ minds tend to go to the worst case scenario, I try to help put their minds at ease when I see them in clinic. I inform them that while seizures can be very dangerous and at times lead to injury or death, these are very rare outcomes. In the vast majority of cases kids recover well from the seizure and in fact, many kids can “outgrow” epilepsy as they get older.

Seizures are caused by electrical changes in the brain and the resulting symptoms can vary widely from person to person – from subtle staring spells to full-body convulsions. While seizures do not typically cause neurological damage, they certainly come with the potential for injury.

Parents often wonder if their child’s seizures will lead to epilepsy. We consider a child to have epilepsy when he has had two or more unprovoked seizures that occur at least 24 hours apart.

One of the important considerations when diagnosing epilepsy, and one in which we try to determine in our New Onset Seizure Clinic, is identifying any triggers to potentially help stop them from happening in the first place.

If you are concerned that your child has had a seizure, it is important to schedule an appointment with an epilepsy specialist who can help you determine if there is a trigger. Once a child has had a seizure, his risk increases for having more. A child that has had one seizure has approximately a 45% risk of having a second one. If he has had two seizures, then the risk for a third seizure increases to 75%-80%.

There are many potential seizure triggers, but only a few we know about for sure. If parents are rigorous about keeping track of their child’s seizures and the circumstances surrounding them, we will be more likely to help them narrow down the trigger.

Everyone has a seizure threshold in their brain – meaning that anyone can have a seizure but some of us are more susceptible to them than others. When a child has epilepsy, her seizure threshold is much lower and will be more likely to have one when encountering a trigger. Some of the more common seizure triggers are:

  • Illness and fever
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Menstrual cycle in females
  • Drugs and alcohol (in excess, they can be a trigger for anyone, but for teens with epilepsy, they will be more likely to cause a seizure)

If we can determine the type of seizure your child is having, we can better council families on what to expect in the future. For instance, nearly all children with BECTS (benign epilepsy with central temporal spikes) will grow out of them by adulthood. The majority of kids with CAE (childhood absence epilepsy) will stop having seizures by adulthood.

The good news is that the majority of children with epilepsy will be able to control their seizures with medications. We consider a child to have intractable epilepsy when two different medications, at adequate doses, have not been able to control his seizures.

In the New Onset Seizure Clinic, I try to help put parents’ minds at ease by explaining what happens during a seizure, helping to pinpoint the triggers, and explaining the potential outlook once we have established a diagnosis. While parents are understandably worried about their child, the ones who have been on this journey for a while tell me that it does get easier with time.

If you have questions, or would like to request an appointment, please contact our Comprehensive Epilepsy Center.
Jeffrey Tenney, MD, PhD

About the Author: Jeffrey Tenney, MD, PhD

Jeffrey Tenney, MD, PhD, is a pediatric epileptologist in the division of Neurology at Cincinnati Children’s. He is part of the New Onset Seizure clinic team and has a research interest in functional brain imaging as a way to understand seizure onset and spread.

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Comments

  1. elise June 25, 15:34
    My daughter had febrile seizures when she was 13 to 19 months, one being over 2 hours. She is now 8 and she had one march 20th. I was scared I thought we were done with those. Thank God she has not had another one and that we have CCHMC new seizure clinic 20 minutes from our house. They are great people that put you at ease.
  2. Amanda Brooks June 25, 18:01
    Seizures and epilepsy lead to early diagnosis of arthritis and tears your teeth up from grinding and clinching...I was 28 when I had open heart because of the construction every time I have seizure s ..Without meds I take over a 100 a day
  3. leila d December 31, 16:59
    My son started having seizures since he was 10 months old...he is now 20 years old. It does not get easier with time...he has so many limitations...it is hard to have a normal life for the whole family.
    • Lori June 04, 18:51
      Totally agree with you. My son started having seizures at 15 mos. And is now 20 also. And yes there are many limitations.
  4. Wally January 13, 14:38
    I have had 3 seizures going on 4 years in June. from scar tissue left from brain surgery (NHL cancer) all test show I am cancer free. On new medicine Keppera & Dilantin, doctor says that should stop seizures. My question is will the scar tissue ever heal? Just looking for your thoughts. Thank You, Wally ( I am 72 years old. and in good health!!
    • Jeffrey Tenney, MD, PhD
      Jeffrey Tenney, MD, PhD Author January 14, 16:12
      Hi Wally, Scar tissue may reduce in size over time but that usually would happen shortly after the surgery. Typically it won't resolve completely and at this point it is unlikely for further changes to happen. Hope this helps!
  5. Sue Nowak January 14, 02:26
    I had my 1st and only grand mal seizure when I was just 10 months old. Had petit mal and eventually what they called partial complex seizures. I never grew out of them. In fact they got worse. I was able to get married and have two beautiful baby girls.The only way I could control it was through a Vegus Nerve Stimulator (1999) that was implanted in me. It worked for a couple years. Then the seizures were back and more sporadic. In 2011, at the age of 49, my Dr. performed a battery of tests to see if I would be eligible for brain surgery. I was! They only had to perform a WADA Test. When they did I stroked! After much time (9 months) and determination I decided to go through with the surgery. I had a partial lobotomy which turned out to be a success! No seizures! I can even drive now! I went to work in Nov. 2015, for the first time since before my stroke. Now I am 54 and seizure free. No, I didn't grow out of the seizures!
  6. Kiprijan June 02, 10:01
    We are from Macedonia,and my son (6 years old)first was diagnosed with Benign Rolandic Epilepsy,we have made eeg and MR scan,and after that other doctor state that he have cortex dysplasia or thickening of both parietal cortex. Here we have only pediatric neurologist but no pediatrician neurologist epileptologist. We would like to have another opinion,since my child still have seizures. Can I please send to you MRI scans,please help us! I look forward to your response,
    • Rachel Camper
      Rachel Camper June 06, 15:35
      Hi Kiprijan, Please contact our Comprehensive Epilepsy Center to see how we might be able to help your son. You can fill out a form to receive more information here: https://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/service/c/epilepsy/contact/ or call this number: 513-636-4222.
  7. bassgirl July 23, 21:15
    My 9 year old son has different types of seizures. He is on 2 seizure meds and his school still reports some type of seizure activity and I see it at home. He had a sudden onset at age 6 and 1/2 with regression. Before seizures he had made so much progress after being diagnosed mild to moderate Autism by the age of 2. He was in a regular Kindergarten class blending with regular kids. Seizures began in the beginning of 1st grade with regression. By 2nd grade I had to set up Home bound school instruction. I had to remove him from the public school system. He is now enrolled in a school for Autism. With the school for Autism and 2 seizure meds he is more stabilized and making some progress but still has some seizure activity nearly everyday.