This week’s guest columnist is Dr. Benjamin Fontenot, a Family Practice resident at the University Hospital and Clinics here in Lafayette.
It was mango season on Saba island, Netherlands Antilles. My wife and I were on the beach eating some, and we decided to give our 8 month-old daughter a taste. She liked it, but then paradise turned scary- she became lethargic, turned blue around the lips, was twitching, and seemed to stop breathing. We called 911 and the island police rushed her to the local ER. By the time we arrived, she was awake, pink, and breathing fine. And now had a 103 degree fever. This was our first “febrile seizure,” and it had nothing to do with the mango. Our daughter had an ear infection, which caused the fever, which led to the seizure.
What is a febrile seizure? Simply, it’s when a child has a seizure with a fever. The child suddenly goes unconscious, has rhythmic twitching of the face, arms or legs, and is unarousable. The child’s breaths are so shallow that it’s hard to tell if they are breathing. After a few minutes of seizing, the child relaxes and breathes normally, and though sleepy and confused-acting, can be aroused. After 10 to 20 more minutes he becomes more awake.
Febrile seizures only happen to about 4% of kids, but they sure are memorable when they do! It’s frightening to watch, but doesn’t cause lasting harm. Intelligence and other aspects of brain development aren’t affected- these kids grow up fine. And kids do breathe adequately during seizures, although it’s tough to tell.
More good news: most kids who have febrile seizures never have another. About one third of these kids have more than one, but they all outgrow them by 6 years of age.
Febrile seizures happen between ages 6 months to 5 years. How high the fever goes, or how fast it goes up, has nothing to do with having a seizure. Thus if your child has a fever of 104, that does not mean they’re going to seize. Some kids seem to get them, most don’t. In fact, seizures usually happen before the onset of fever, so if your child is already hot, it’s less likely that they’ll have one.
During my second year of medical school, it happened again. My daughter was 16 months at the time. She was playing with the neighbor’s kids when she suddenly stopped, fell straight back on the floor, and began shaking. The other mothers freaked out, but my wife assured them that it was “only a seizure.” She sure got some strange looks! Then the fever started, and it turned out to be another ear infection.
As we discussed above, febrile seizures are scary to watch, but are actually no reason to panic. They don’t hurt child’s brain, kids breathe adequately during the seizure, and go on to grow up fine. Easy to say, but what do I do if my child has one?
First, stay calm. Roll the child onto his side, so if he won’t choke if vomiting. Don’t put things in the mouth. Some people worry kids will “swallow their tongue” or bite their tongue, and think sticking something in will help- wrong! Kids don’t choke during seizures, and shoving things in can hurt their teeth and mouth. Don’t try to stop the jerking either- you can’t, and again may hurt the child by trying.
Watch the time. Seizures lasting past 5 minutes may require treatment. If the seizure is going that long, call 911. Paramedics carry medication that can stop seizures.
Once the seizure is over, the child should see a doctor, to determine the source of the fever. Fevers are usually caused by viruses that go away by themselves, but sometimes kids have bacterial causes like ear infections, and need antibiotics. Blood tests are mostly unnecessary after febrile seizures.
Can you prevent febrile seizures? Regular dosing with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen don’t prevent them. Giving anti-seizure medication, like for kids with epilepsy, may help. However, in most cases this is not recommended. Potential side effects of daily anti-seizure medications usually outweigh the benefits. Remember- febrile seizures are not harmful. The only danger is leaving kids in the bathtub unattended and they seize and drown. But you shouldn’t leave kids alone in the tub anyway, seizures or not.
Febrile seizures are scary for parents. Follow the plan above, recognize the signs and symptoms, and stay calm!