One of the scariest things for any parent to see is their child
having a seizure. It comes on suddenly and seems to take over the
child's body. Its victims often become unconscious and are thrown
into a series of uncontrollable jerking movements. The eyes may
move to one side or the other. The jaw tightens. Some people wet
The episode usually lasts a few seconds to a few minutes (but it
can feel like hours) and then it's gone, leaving the child
exhausted. Sleep often follows. It's hard for a parent to imagine
any circumstance where this disturbing picture is completely
harmless, but in the case of febrile seizures, it is.
Febrile is the medical term used to describe someone who has a
fever, so febrile seizures are brought on by a fever and nothing
else. They occur in children between the ages of 3 months and 5
years and 2-5 percent of all kids will have at least one febrile
seizure by their fifth birthday. One out of every three children
who has a febrile seizure will have at least one more before
outgrowing them around age 5 or 6.
Why some kids get these and others don't is anybody's guess, but
they do tend to run in families. A child who has a sibling with
febrile seizures has a 10 percent chance of having them. If both a
parent and a child had febrile seizures, then other children in
that family have a 50 percent risk of having them. About 25 percent
of children with febrile seizures have a close relative who had
them as a child.
Febrile seizures are divided into "simple" or "complex," depending
on how long the seizure lasts. Simple febrile seizures are the most
common. They last less than 15 minutes (usually a lot less),
involve the entire body and don't recur within 24 hours. Complex
febrile seizures are ones that last more than 15 minutes, involve
only a particular part of the body or occur more than once in 24
hours. Complex febrile seizures are a little concerning because
they may represent a more serious condition, but usually not.
The seizure itself is almost always harmless. Febrile seizures do
not cause brain damage, decreased intelligence or lead to
behavioral issues. The risk of epilepsy is slightly higher in
children with a history of febrile seizures, especially complex
ones, but it still remains pretty low.
The reason for the fever doesn't seem to matter, but since most
kids get viruses several times a year, that's the most likely
cause. Usually the child's temperature is greater than 102.2,
although it can be lower. Some parents whose children have febrile
seizures start fever-lowering medications like Tylenol or ibuprofen
at the first sign of illness, but in many cases the seizure is the
When a child has a febrile seizure, parents will almost always
seek out their pediatrician or take the child to the Emergency
Department. It is not unreasonable to call 911, but in most cases
the seizure will be over long before they arrive. The first thing a
doctor will do is try to make sure the seizure was caused by the
fever and not something else. Once that's established, the source
of the fever will be determined and treatment will be directed
there. In some cases, that will mean antibiotics; in many cases it
will not. Most childhood fevers are caused by viruses so fluids,
rest and fever-lowering medication may be all that are
Many parents wonder why all kids with febrile seizures aren't
placed on anti-seizure medications (anti-convulsants) to try to
avoid another episode. The fact is that every medication has risks
and side effects. These have to be weighed against the risk of
another seizure. Since two out of three children will only have one
febrile seizure in their lifetime, the risks and side effects of
treatment generally far outweigh the benefits.
For parents who just saw their child have a seizure, that may be
hard to understand. But remember, even if a child does have a
second febrile seizure, it is almost always brief and will not
cause long-term problems.
There's no way to avoid febrile seizures if a child is predisposed
to have one, but parents can be alert to rising temperatures, start
fever-lowering medications right away (remember, never give aspirin
to a child) and learn to take a temperature properly with the right
thermometer. If your child does have a febrile seizure, it will be
an upsetting experience, but it's a benign process and, aside from
the anxiety they can cause, febrile seizures will eventually go
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric
rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida
Children's Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics
at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
See more of Dr. Thornton's stories here.
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