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When a child has convulsions for months and years, the condition is called epilepsy. If your child is diagnosed with epilepsy, treatment might involve anticonvulsant medication. Epilepsy treatment aims to let children live a normal life.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a general name for a range of conditions that are characterised by two or more attacks of abnormal electrical activity in the brain.

When there’s an uncontrolled electrical discharge from nerve cells in the brain, it causes odd sensations and abnormal movement or behaviour. This is called a convulsion or seizure.

Causes of epilepsy

We don’t know what causes epilepsy. Around 60% of children who suffer from epilepsy are otherwise perfectly healthy.

There are some things that make a child more likely to have seizures. These include:

Some seizures are caused by fever. These seizures are called febrile convulsions, and they’re not a type of epilepsy. Only 3% of children with febrile conditions go on to develop epilepsy.

Symptoms of epilepsy

A child with epilepsy might have many different types of seizures, some more dramatic than others. The type of seizure depends on where the abnormal electrical discharge in the brain comes from.

Generalised seizures of the tonic-clonic type (formerly known as grand mal seizures) happen without warning. They affect the whole brain and cause a child to lose consciousness and fall down. The child’s body stiffens and her arms and legs jerk rhythmically. She might drool and wet herself.

In contrast, other generalised seizures might only appear as a brief ‘absence’ from activities, in which the child stares into space and has an altered conscious state for about 30 seconds.

Partial or focal (localised) seizures start in only one part of the brain. Your child’s awareness might or might not be affected. There might be:

  • localised muscle twitching
  • sensory disturbances, including numbness and abnormal smells, sounds, tastes and vision
  • a temporary inability to talk
  • abnormal behaviour, including automatic movements like picking at clothing or lip smacking.

When to see your doctor

You should take your child to your GP if:

  • your child has recurrent seizures
  • your child has a seizure that lasts more than five minutes
  • you’re not sure whether your child has had a seizure
  • your child starts having seizures more often than is usual for him.

Tests for epilepsy

If your GP thinks your child might have epilepsy, the GP will usually refer your child to a paediatrician or paediatric neurologist for further investigation.

One of these doctors will order blood tests and an EEG. A CT scan or MRI scan of the brain might help rule out any underlying structural abnormality.

Your doctor will look at the age of onset, seizure type and EEG results and then classify your child’s symptoms into an epilepsy syndrome. This classification helps the doctors decide how to treat your child. It also helps the doctors understand whether your child’s condition might change in the future.

Treatment for epilepsy

Treatment aims to let your child have a perfectly normal life.

Anticonvulsant medication can help most children, but it does have side effects. Your doctor will tell you about the medication and regularly monitor medication levels in your child’s blood. If you have any concerns about the medication or its side effects, you should talk about these concerns with your doctor.

If medication doesn’t work, your child can try other therapies, including a ketogenic diet or surgical options. Your doctor will explain these to you.

The outlook varies from person to person and is difficult to predict. Contacting an epilepsy support group might help you feel less fearful about your child’s condition.

It’s always OK for you to discuss questions and concerns with your child’s doctor. And it’s important that your child understands her condition as much as possible.

You should tell everyone involved in your child’s daily care – for example, child care staff and teachers – that your child has epilepsy. They need to understand what this means, as well as how to handle a seizure if it happens. Encourage your child to wear a wrist bracelet or pendant that lets people know he has epilepsy.

Prevention of epileptic seizures

Regular meals, adequate sleep and exercise will usually help to prevent seizures.

Your child should avoid things that she knows trigger her seizures, like flashing lights, overtiredness, hunger or television.

Always supervise your child when he’s swimming or bathing, and try to avoid activities like climbing trees.

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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