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What you need to know about febrile seizures

Although they rarely occur, febrile seizures are freaky. The good news is that they aren’t particularly dangerous. The bad news is that you’re still likely to lose your mind when your baby starts convulsing and loses consciousness.

“Occasionally a baby’s temperature will spike faster than its body can handle,” said the paramedic at my baby first-aid course, “and the baby will begin to seize. It might turn blue, its eyes might roll back, it will shake and become unresponsive for several minutes. Don’t worry, though, it won’t cause any permanent damage and after three or so minutes your baby will be fine.”

“Ummm… are you kidding me?! Don’t worry? This man is clearly insane,” I thought. I then did what every pregnant (at the time) paranoid parent would do and hit the internet with a vengeance. I also wrote several quasi-hysterical emails to doctor friends of mine. They went something like this, “Help! I don’t want my baby to die. PS. I just found out about febrile seizures.”

Good news, everyone! Apparently the paramedic was right. Although they are terrifying, most of the time febrile seizures are not dangerous. Still, information is power, so here is everything you need to know about them.

What is a febrile seizure?

Also known as a febrile convulsion, this is a condition that can sometimes occur in babies and young kids (6 months to 6 years old) when their temperature rises rapidly.

How common are they?

Luckily, only 3 per cent of children are ever affected and only half of those are likely to have a repeat episode.

“The likelihood is determined by the child’s age, with the younger the child at first febrile seizure, the more likely to have another,” explains emergency doctor, Ryan Snaith.

Are they dangerous?

This is the great part — no! Although they look terrifying, febrile seizures do not cause any kind of brain damage.

“Children with febrile seizures do not have a higher likelihood of having epilepsy,” adds Dr. Snaith.

What should you do if your baby is having a febrile seizure?

Do not panic. Ha! Easy to say, harder to do; but for the safety and sanity of everyone involved, it’s important that you stay calm.

“Try and move the child to an area where they cannot injure themselves,” says Dr. Snaith. “If possible, lie them on their side, left side down.”

Dr. Snaith advises parents to time the seizure and, if you can, take mental or physical notes of everything that happens so that you are able describe it to your paediatrician.

What shouldn’t you do during a seizure?

Run around the house screaming. Other things to avoid include placing anything in your baby’s mouth (including medicine or your fingers), restraining your baby, placing them in a bath (this will not help the seizure and can be very dangerous) and keeping your baby on a raised surface, like a changing table.

Should you call an ambulance?

Strictly speaking, febrile seizures aren’t dangerous and can pass relatively fast (generally within three minutes and often in under a minute). So if you are alone, Dr. Snaith advises you to stay with your child and ensure that they are safe and don’t hurt themselves. Then call for medical help once the seizure is over.

However, if you have another person with you or a seizure is taking longer than five minutes, your baby remains unconscious, has trouble breathing, is very lethargic or very ill once it is over, or if your maternal instinct tells you that something is up, call an ambulance as quickly as your phone and dialling fingers let you.

What should you do once a seizure is over?

Still your beating heart, cuddle your baby and then call your doctor or paediatrician to explain exactly what happened. They will then tell you whether you should go in to see them, head to a hospital or stay put. If it’s your baby’s first-ever seizure and you can’t get a hold of your doctor, call the emergency line — it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

“It is difficult for parents to determine whether or not the seizure their child is having is indeed a febrile seizure or a seizure from a more serious process,” says Dr. Snaith. “This needs to be determined by a doctor after taking a careful history and examination. A diagnosis of a febrile seizure can be made if a fever is present and there is an absence of any other concerning findings.”

If prescribed and advised by your doctor, you can administer appropriate medication, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen if your baby still has a high fever and looks uncomfortable.

What can you do to prevent febrile seizures?

Here comes the sad news — nothing. You are powerless. If your baby is susceptible, they will have a febrile seizure. Fever medication, massages or a special enchanted febrile seizure dance will not prevent it.

Getting to hospital or a doctor

If you decide to take your baby in to see a medical professional, make sure you have a driver or another adult present. Somebody should be watching the baby in the car.

How can you tell it’s not something more serious?

Usually if a baby has a nasty cold or flu, roseola or an ear infection, their fever rockets above 39 degrees C and they start convulsing, they are experiencing a febrile seizure. However, there is always a chance that something more serious could be causing their condition. The only way to tell for certain is to look out for warning signs and have a medical professional look into it.

Dr. Snaith says that if a child has not come back to their normal self after an hour, experiences more than one seizure in a row or is not speaking, using their arms or legs and not acting like themselves, parents should seek urgent medical care.

Once at the hospital, things should be relatively clear.

“The diagnosis of a simple febrile convulsion means that no tests (blood tests, X-rays, urine tests or lumbar puncture) need to be performed and a child can be safely discharged home with a follow-up with their GP. A simple febrile convulsion can last up to 15 minutes and still not require testing,” says Dr. Snaith. “However, if the child is under 6 months of age, over 6 years or there are other concerning features, as determined by your doctor, further testing may be indicated.”

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