At 4 a.m., a terrifying sound woke Shannon Bell, a mom in Victoria. “It was the worst noise I’ll ever hear,” she says. She ran to her 14-month-old daughter’s crib, and found Abaigael moaning, curled up and shaking, with her eyes rolling back into her head.
“I screamed for my husband. I knew something was very wrong, and then somehow, even though I really knew nothing about febrile seizures, I realized that’s what it was,” says Bell. “I called 9-1-1.” By the time they arrived at the hospital, Abaigael’s seizure had lasted at least 40 minutes. Doctors treated her with anti-seizure medication, and determined that she had an ear infection and a related fever, which may have triggered the seizure.
One in every 25 otherwise healthy kids between the ages of six months and five years will suffer at least one febrile seizure. The first usually occurs, between the ages of six months and three years old.
Mary Connolly, head of paediatric neurology at British Columbia’s Children’s hospital, tries to educate parents about this condition. “The most important thing parents should know is that febrile seizures are strongly genetic,” she says. “We’re not sure if they’re caused by quick-rising fevers, and it may even happen without much of a fever at all, but we do know that if a child’s parent or sibling had one, the risk is 50 percent.”
Most febrile seizures are classified as “simple,” and last around five minutes. If the seizure persists for less than five minutes, a trip to the ER isn’t necessary, but little ones should be checked for the source of the fever. “Complex” seizures, however, can last more than 15 minutes, may recur within 24 hours, and are sometimes limited to one side of the body. This kind of seizure requires further assessment (like electroencephalography and neuro-imaging) and anti-epileptic medication may be prescribed.
Jacquelyn Dowhaniuk’s son Isaak suffered a so-called “simple” seizure the day before his second birthday, but it was the longest five minutes of Dowhaniuk’s life. “It happened suddenly, but it felt like an eternity,” says the Toronto mom. “I was busy getting dinner on, when my husband started screaming. Isaak was losing consciousness, and his eyes were rolling to the back of his head. But by the time the ambulance came, it was over. At the ER, the doctor sent us home quickly, explaining that Isaak was fine and that febrile seizures are common.”
About 35 to 50 percent of kids who experience a febrile seizure will have a recurrence within a year, notes Connolly, particularly if the first seizure was accompanied by a relatively low fever, if there’s a family history of febrile seizures, or if she was younger than 15 months old at the time. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen can reduce the discomfort of a fever, but will not prevent a seizure.
Bell’s daughter, Abaigael, had a second febrile seizure six months after the first, coinciding with a fever related to a urinary tract infection. This time it only lasted a few minutes, and her seizures never came back after that. (Abaigael is now a healthy nine-year-old.) in fact, research has shown that having had one lengthy seizure makes another unlikely.
“The majority of children who have very long seizures grow up to be perfectly normal, and don’t remember it at all,” says Connolly. But parents do: it took a long time for Bell to recover from the trauma. For several years, whenever Abaigael had a fever, Bell set her alarm to check on her daughter throughout the night. Now, she tries to talk openly about it. “Febrile seizures are so common, but spoken of so little. i started sharing my story because no mom should ever have to see her baby convulsing in her arms and not know what’s happening.”
A version of this article appeared in our June 2013 issue with the headline “Fever seizures,” p. 78.