To watch your child having a seizure is undoubtedly one of the scariest moments of a parent’s life. There will be many questions: Why is this happening? Will it happen again? A wide range of issues may need to be addressed, but it is most important to address some of the myths that arise when the words “seizure” and “epilepsy” are used.
▪ Seizures and epilepsy are the same. A seizure occurs when the nerve cells in the brain misfire and cause symptoms that are controlled by the part of the brain that is affected. Seizures can occur for many reasons and may be an isolated event. Epilepsy means that a person has had at least one seizure and has a high risk for having another seizure.
▪ Seizure medicines cure seizures. Unlike antibiotics, seizure medications only work to control seizures. Seizure medications need to be taken on a regular basis to be effective. Missed doses put the person at risk to have another seizure.
▪ Seizure medicines are toxic and cause long-term damage. It is important to know that all medications — even ibuprofen and Tylenol — carry the risk of side effects. Common seizure medications may cause side effects, which usually occur during the first few weeks of treatment, including drowsiness, nausea and dizziness. These symptoms typically improve within a couple of weeks. Rarely, a rash or mood changes can develop and can be addressed by your neurologist.
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▪ My child will need to be on seizure medicine for the rest of his or her life. The majority of children will outgrow their seizures. An electroencephalogram (EEG), MRI, developmental status, age of onset and degree of difficulty in controlling seizures can be helpful in predicting the chances of outgrowing seizures. Once a child has been seizure free on medication for two years, you may work with your doctor to slowly wean off the seizure medication.
▪ My child cannot play sports. Most children with controlled seizures can participate in just about any sport. Certain sports, such as water sports, require extra supervision, and a few extreme sports such as skydiving and scuba diving carry much higher risks. Normal precautions, such as wearing a helmet while bike riding or skateboarding, and monitoring for concussions in high risk sports, apply here just as they do for all children.
▪ Seizures damage the brain. Brief seizures do not cause brain damage. In very unusual cases with seizures lasting longer than 30 to 60 minutes, seizures can cause scarring to the brain.
▪ My child will never be able to lead a normal life. Most people with epilepsy (active or resolved) lead meaningful and full lives. To be diagnosed with epilepsy does not take away your chance to attend college, get married, have a family and hold a job. In fact, you likely work with or know someone who has seizures and is well-controlled on a medication. Approximately 1.5 percent of the population has been diagnosed with epilepsy, which means more than one in 100 people. To put that into perspective, in a high school of 1,000 teenagers, 15 teens have had or will have seizures in their lifetime.
▪ Flashing lights can cause seizures and therefore my child cannot play video games. It is very rare for seizures to be triggered by flashing lights. The EEG test will usually identify whether a person is sensitive to flashing lights.
▪ A person can swallow their tongue during a seizure. This is a common myth; however, it is impossible to swallow your tongue. A quick check on your own will let you know that it is strongly secured. If you open the mouth of a person who is seizing, you could cause problems such as breaking teeth, breaking the object being used to open the mouth and risk of choking.
Instead, try to remain calm and move your child to a soft place. Roll your child onto his or her side and stay with him or her until the seizure ends. Watch the time and observe the type of movements. After a seizure, it is okay to let your child sleep, continuing to observe him or her. Most seizures will end in five minutes. If the seizure doesn’t end at five minutes, it is time to call 911.
▪ Stress causes seizures. This one might actually be somewhat true, although it would need to be a rather significant emotional stress. There are some common triggers that families have control over, including lack of sleep, missed medications, alcohol or substance use, and illnesses.
Lifestyle adjustments may be helpful in controlling your child’s seizures. General guidelines are to drink plenty of water, eat healthy foods, maintain a regular sleep schedule of eight to 12 hours per night, exercise daily, develop coping strategies for stressful situations and avoid illicit substances and alcohol.
If your child has suffered a seizure, call 911 and seek immediate medical attention. If your child needs a pediatric neurologist or if you need more information, call 305-243-6732.
Alyssa Pensirikul, M.D., is a pediatric neurologist at the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.