What are febrile convulsions?
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 with a fever 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 unwell.
The fever may be caused by any infection including viral upper respiratory infections (cold or flu), ear infections, pneumonia, bacterial diarrhoea and/or, more rarely, 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.
What are the symptoms?
- body stiffening
- sharp jerking movements of their 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 seizures 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 or any sharp objects nearby that could injure them
- stay with them
- call for an ambulance (000)
- roll your child onto his/her side when the convulsion is over
- talk to them calmly and orientate them to their surroundings until they have fully recovered or help arrives
Do not try and restrain them, put anything in their mouth or give them any food or drink.
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.
When should you see a doctor?
All children should be seen by a doctor after a febrile convulsion. The doctor will check your child’s temperature and look for the cause of the fever. This may involve some tests, depending on your child’s symptoms.
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. Regular paracetamol or ibuprofen will not prevent further febrile convulsions. Sometimes children who have febrile convulsions, particularly long ones, will need to be observed in hospital.
In most cases, no tests or follow up are required after a first febrile convulsion.
Preventing a febrile convulsion
It is not possible to prevent febrile convulsions as they are often the first sign of illness.
However, here are some tips to manage a fever:
- Children’s paracetamol (Panadol) or ibuprofen (Nurofen) may help reduce temperature and make them feel a little better. However, this has not been shown to prevent febrile convulsions.
- Avoid overdressing your child.
- Avoid cold baths that may cool your child down too rapidly.
- Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids.
In most cases, medications that prevent seizures are not needed.
Key points to remember
- One in 30 children will experience a febrile convulsion, usually before 6 years of age.
- Febrile convulsions are caused by a rapid change in body temperature associated with infection.
- Febrile convulsions do not cause any damage to children’s brains or affect their development.
- If you witness a child having a febrile convulsion, you should make the area safe by moving the child from the edge of the bed or shifting nearby objects that may injure them.
- Call an ambulance if your child is having a convulsion.
- A child who has a febrile convulsion has no more chance of having a serious infection than any other child with a fever.
Please call 000 immediately if your child is having a convulsion. Otherwise, contact your local doctor or visit your nearest hospital emergency department. For non-urgent medical advice, call 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84) to speak to a registered nurse 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the cost of a local call.