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Absence Seizures

Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
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What Is a Seizure?

A seizure (SEE-zhur) is unusual electrical activity in the brain. Normally, electrical activity in the brain involves neurons (nerve cells) in different areas sending signals at different times. During a seizure, many neurons fire all at once.

Depending on where in the brain the seizure happens, it causes changes in behavior, movement, or feelings. A seizure that affects both sides of the brain is called generalized. A seizure that involves only one side of the brain is called focal.

What Is an Absence Seizure?

An absence seizure is a type of generalized seizure. During this type of seizure, the person is not aware of what is going on around them.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of an Absence Seizure?

Someone who is having an absence seizure suddenly stops what they are doing and stares into space. They also might:

  • open and close their lips loudly or make chewing motions
  • rub their fingers together
  • flutter their eyelids

Someone can have many absence seizures in a day. They don’t remember having the seizures. 

What Happens After an Absence Seizure?

Absence seizures usually last less than 3 minutes. After the seizure, the person may feel confused or tired, have a headache, or have other symptoms. This is called the postictal (post-IK-tul) phase. It usually lasts just a few minutes, but can be longer.

What Causes an Absence Seizure?

Many times, the cause for absence seizures is not known. Sometimes seizures are from gene mutations. Children with absence seizure usually have a relative with seizures too.

Anyone can get absence seizures, but they are more likely in:

  • children ages 4–14 years
  • people who have a family member with absence seizures
  • girls

How Are Absence Seizures Diagnosed?

If your child had a seizure, the doctor probably will want you to see a pediatric neurologist (a doctor who treats brain, spine, and nervous system problems). The neurologist will ask questions about what happened during the seizure and do an exam.

To find out the type of seizure, the doctor might order tests such as:

  • blood tests and urine (pee) tests to look for infections or illnesses
  • EEG to measure brain wave activity
  • VEEG, or video electroencephalography (EEG with video recording)
  • CAT scan, MRI, and PET/MRI scans to get very detailed images of the brain

How Are Absence Seizures Treated?

Not everyone with absence seizures needs treatment. If they do, medicine is the most common treatment. If medicine doesn’t help, a ketogenic diet can help reduce their number of seizures.

Many children outgrow absence seizures in their teens, especially if the seizures started when they were younger than 8 years old.

How Can Parents Help?

Your doctor will help you create a plan for your child and talk to you about:

  • what medicines your child should take
  • if any “triggers” (such as fever, lack of sleep, or medicines) can make a seizure more likely
  • any precautions your child should take while swimming or bathing
  • whether your child should wear a medical ID bracelet
  • if it’s OK for your teen to drive
  • how to keep your child safe during a seizure. Share this information with caregivers, coaches, and staff at your child’s school.

If your child has another seizure, keep a record of:

  • when it happened
  • how long it lasted
  • what happened right before the seizure
  • what happened during and after the seizure

This information will help the doctor find the best treatment for your child’s seizures.

What Else Should I Know?

If your child has seizures, reassure them that they’re not alone. Your doctor and the care team can answer questions and offer support. They also might be able to recommend a local support group. Online organizations can help too, such as:

Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
Date reviewed: October 2021