A febrile convulsion is a seizure or fit that occurs with a fever (temperature above 38°C). Febrile convulsions usually occur in children between the ages of six months and six years. Approximately one in 30 children will experience a febrile convulsion.
It is a very scary experience for most parents, but it does not harm your child. Febrile convulsions do not cause brain damage and will not affect your child’s development.
What causes it?
It is not clear why febrile convulsions happen. Convulsions are caused by a spike or rapid firing of the neurons (nerves) within the brain. Febrile convulsions often occur during the early stages of an illness when there is a rapid rise in body temperature. Your child may have a febrile convulsion before you even realise they are sick.
The fever may be caused by any infection including a viral upper respiratory infection (cold or flu), ear infection, pneumonia, bacterial diarrhoea and/or, more rarely, an infection in the blood stream (sepsis) or infection around the brain (meningitis).
A child who has a febrile convulsion has no more chance of having a serious infection than any other child with a fever.
Signs and symptoms
- body stiffening
- sharp jerking movements of arms and legs
- head arching back
- eyes rolling back
A child who is having a febrile convulsion will not respond to you. Convulsions may last for several minutes (rarely up to 15 minutes or longer). The child is usually drowsy afterwards.
Does my child have epilepsy?
Having a febrile convulsion does not mean that your child has epilepsy. Children with epilepsy have convulsions when they do not have a fever.
Some children may have a second (or third) febrile convulsion when they are sick with a fever at another time. These children are still not likely to develop epilepsy.
Care during a convulsion
If you witness your child having a febrile convulsion, there is nothing you can do to stop it. However, you should:
- make the area safe by shifting your child from the edge of a bed and moving any sharp objects nearby that could injure them
- call for an ambulance (000)
- roll your child onto their side when the convulsion is over
The care of a person having a convulsion is taught in a First Aid course. Completing a First Aid course may help you feel more comfortable with knowing what to do if you witness another convulsion in the future.
Care after a febrile convulsion
Your child may be ‘out of sorts’ for a day or so but this will pass. No medications are required except Paracetamol or Ibuprofen as you would usually use them. Sometimes children who have febrile convulsions, particularly long ones, will need to be observed in hospital.
In most cases, no follow-up appointment is required after a first febrile convulsion.