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Understanding febrile seizures: Doctors’ tips on handling them

A seizure brought on by a fever in

A seizure brought on by a fever in the very young is usually benign, doctors say. Credit: Dreamstime

What is a febrile seizure?

It’s a seizure that generally happens to children under age 2 who are sick with a fever, but one can occur up to age 6, according to doctors.

“The thought is it’s not necessarily the height of the fever, but the rate of rise of the child’s temperature that causes the febrile seizure,” says Dr. Adam Wos, medical director of the emergency department at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson. “In the vast majority of cases, they are benign.”

The child’s body will tighten up and shake, Wos says. While that usually lasts 2 minutes or less, for parents the convulsing is terrifying, Wos says. “The time that your child is seizing seems like an eternity,” he says.

Dr. Gabrielle Chassagne, pediatric epilepsy director at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, emphasizes that having a febrile seizure doesn’t mean a child has or will develop epilepsy. “It’s very different from an epileptic seizure, where the brain is predisposed to having seizures for other reasons,” she says.

During a seizure, parents should lie the child on his side, and shouldn’t place anything in the child’s mouth, both Wos and Chassagne say. The child may drool because she can’t swallow while seizing, they say.

It’s never a bad idea to call 911, both doctors agree. The child should be evaluated by medical professionals to determine the source of the fever and treat it if necessary, Wos says. Is it a urinary tract infection? Ear infection? Or something more serious, such as a bacterial infection?

Once a child has one febrile seizure, he may be susceptible to another one, but it’s not a given, the doctors say. Still, parents will want to “stay ahead” of any future fever by appropriately dosing acetaminophen or ibuprofen when necessary, Wos says.

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