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Absence seizures

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

An absence seizure is where you lose awareness of what's happening around you for a brief period of time, a few seconds or up to 20 seconds. There may be no obvious visible signs to anyone witnessing, or they may be very subtle, and you don't usually lose consciousness.

It is a type of epilepsy caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain, and it mostly affects children. The seizures don't usually cause any long-term problems, although they can be disruptive to school days, and most children outgrow them.

Doctor’s advice

How can you tell it’s an absence seizure?

Someone in the midst of an absence seizure may appear to be staring blankly into space or daydreaming and possibly have very mild jerking movements of their body or fluttering of their eyes.

Absence seizures are short-lived, lasting seconds, and you will have no memory of them occurring; this again makes it harder to recognize and diagnose. Absence seizures can be triggered by breathing at a rapid rate or when over-excited, but they can happen without any prior warning.

Symptoms are so subtle that a child may have tens of absence seizures daily, which go largely unnoticed. This does have an impact on schoolwork, as concentration is frequently disrupted, and they miss parts of the lesson. They may also feel quite tired afterward.

How are absence seizures diagnosed?

Parents or teachers may notice a child looking dazed, and that this has an impact on their learning and concentration at school. It’s best to see your doctor if this is happening to your child. They will ask more questions, such as regarding the birth history, any learning difficulties or difficulty meeting milestones, or any other relevant factors or family history. They may refer you directly to a neurologist.

The neurologist will order investigations, depending on the history. Blood tests may be appropriate. An electroencephalogram (EEG) records the brain’s electrical activity in a painless procedure with sensors over the scalp attached to a computer. It’s best done during an absence seizure to capture a particular pattern for a clear diagnosis.

Your specialist may request other tests to ensure that there is no other cause for the symptoms. MRI brain scans and CT head scans can identify any area of abnormality in the brain, but these are usually normal.

How are absence seizures treated?

Absence seizures can affect daily activities and school performance, so treatment is important. There are many anti-epileptic medications available, which are gradually increased upward to a dose suitable to keep your child seizure-free. Your specialist will advise of common side effects and will be your point of contact if medication is difficult to tolerate.

Once your child has been seizure-free for two years, these medications can be slowly tapered off under specialist supervision.

Is there anything I can do to help?

It's very important that your child gets plenty of rest and good quality sleep, as absence seizures can be very tiring. A healthy life starts with good nutrition and hydration, so ensure they are eating healthy regular meals and getting exercise.

Having a relaxing wind-down and avoiding the blue light of screens for the hour or two before bed can help improve your child's sleep quality.

Stress can add to the burden of absence seizures, so ensure that any stressors in your child’s life are identified and managed as much as possible and avoid any possible triggers.

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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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