What are febrile seizures and how to handle them?

Is your baby prone to febrile seizures? Here’s what you should know about these types of seizures, as well as what to do if your child has one. By Tammy Jacks


While it can be distressing to witness your child having any kind of seizure, some seizures are less harmful than others. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, febrile seizures or convulsions are the most common type of convulsion in infants and affect most children under the age of five. Evidence also shows that around 40% of children who have had one febrile seizure, will have recurring seizures.

What are febrile seizures?  

Johannesburg-based GP Jennifer Boshoff who works in the emergency units at Sunninghill and Milpark hospitals says that febrile seizures are triggered by the body’s response to a fever.

However, it’s a misconception that the fever must be around 40°C for a child to have a seizure, says Jennifer. A febrile seizure often occurs as a result of how quickly a child’s fever rises, rather than how high it goes, she explains. Some babies have a low tolerance to fevers and can have a convulsion with a fever of 38.5°C, while other children have a high tolerance to fevers and will only have a convulsion when it peaks at 40°C, or not at all, she adds.

ALSO SEE: Has baby got a fever? Here’s what to do

How do I know if my child is having a febrile seizure?

If your little one has a sudden onset of a fever, which keeps rising, she’s at a greater risk of having a febrile seizure, says Jennifer.

Febrile seizures are usually characterised by:  

  • Uncontrollable shaking
  • Eyes that roll back
  • Brief unconsciousness
  • Stiff or twitching limbs.

Are febrile seizures harmful?

The good news is, that although a febrile seizure looks scary for parents, they’re not generally harmful, especially if they last less than 10 to 15 minutes, says Jennifer. And, even if your child has more than one febrile seizure, there’s no conclusive evidence that these kinds of fevers cause any long-term damage.

4 common myths about febrile seizures

They cause epilepsy

This is not true as a febrile seizure only occur as a result of the body’s response to a fever. Epilepsy is characterised by recurring seizures which aren’t linked to fevers.

They’re linked to bacterial infections only

This is a myth, says Jenny. Febrile seizures can be linked to a host of childhood illnesses, including the common cold and flu, which are often caused by viruses.

They can affect the brain long-term

There are no studies that suggest that a febrile seizure can harm the brain, says Jennifer. Febrile seizures cannot cause brain damage or neurological problems unless secondary complications arise, such as choking on saliva as a result of the fever. Even if febrile seizures last a long time, most don’t cause any long-term damage.

They cause developmental delays

Again, there’s no conclusive evidence to suggest febrile seizures cause any developmental delays in babies. Even if your child has had a few febrile seizures, this won’t affect her ability to reach her milestones such as crawling, walking and talking.


How to prevent a febrile seizure

While it’s not always possible to prevent a febrile seizure, there’s a lot you can do to keep your child’s fever in check, says Jennifer. Here are a few tried-and-tested methods:

  • Alternate between ibuprofen and paracetamol every 4-8 hours and always follow your pharmacist or GP’s instructions on dosage, as this will depend on your child’s age.
  • If your child’s fever is rising, undress her and sponge her down with lukewarm water. Ensure she doesn’t shiver as this could cause her body to go into shock.
  • Avoid holding her for too long as body heat can cause fevers to spike. Rather lay her down next to you and keep your hand on her for comfort.
  • Never leave your baby unattended and make sure to check her fever every 10-15 minutes.

If your child starts to have a febrile seizure, Jennifer suggests the following:

  • First and foremost, don’t panic. It’s unlikely that the fever will last more than 5 minutes.
  • Lay your baby on her side – as this is the safest position to avoid choking. Never put anything in your child’s mouth to prevent her biting her tongue as this can obstruct her airways.
  • Ensure there’s nothing dangerous around her, such as water, but place her on a safe surface.
  • Avoid holding her down during the seizure. Simply wait for it to finish, and then hold her.
  • Watch for any other symptoms, such as vomiting or a stiff neck, as this could be a sign of meningitis. Generally, however, febrile seizures aren’t directly linked to meningitis, says Jennifer.
  • Bring your child straight to the GP or ER for an examination by a doctor to rule out further complications and suggest possible ways to prevent febrile seizures in the future.
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