What is an absence seizure?
An absence seizure is a type of seizure that affects the whole brain at once. They cause the person to stop what they are doing and stare into space. People may think the person is daydreaming or not paying attention. Absence seizures can happen many times a day.
They mostly affect children and adolescents. This can cause problems with the child’s learning, so it’s important to get treatment.
Absence seizures used to be called ‘petit mal’ seizures. They are a form of epilepsy, a condition that disrupts the electrical activity in the brain, causing the seizure.
What are the symptoms of an absence seizure?
In a typical absence seizure, the person temporarily loses awareness and stops what they are doing. The seizure comes on abruptly and stops as quickly as it started.
When someone is having an absence seizure, they won’t respond to you and they lose their facial expression. Sometimes their eyelids may flutter, or their eyeballs may roll back.
An absence seizure normally lasts from 5 to 30 seconds. Then the person’s awareness quickly returns to normal.
There are other, less common types of absence seizure with different symptoms:
- atypical absence seizure, which can be more gradual and may involve the person also slumping or jerking.
- myoclonic absence, where the person rhythmically jerks their shoulder or arms or twitches their face.
- absence with eyelid myoclonia, where the eyelids jerk and the eyes roll upwards.
When should I see my doctor?
See your doctor if:
- your child has a seizure but has not had one before
- they are having more seizures than normal
- you’re not sure whether your child has had a seizure
How is an absence seizure diagnosed?
If your child has an absence seizure, see your doctor. They will examine them and organise for them to have tests, including an electroencephalogram, or EEG, to measure the electrical activity of their brain, a brain scan, and blood tests. A paediatrician (child specialist) or neurologist (brain specialist) will probably care for your child.
It’s a good idea to video an absence seizure on your phone, if you can. Seeing exactly what happens during the seizure can help your doctor to make an accurate diagnosis.
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How is an absence seizure treated?
Many people with absence seizures don’t need treatment. It depends on how often they are having the seizures.
If a child is having a lot of absence seizures, it can affect their learning and development. In this case, they may be given medicine to prevent the seizures from happening.
It’s important to avoid things that can trigger an absence seizure. These may include flashing lights, getting very tired or hungry, or watching television. Eating regular meals, getting enough sleep and exercising can reduce the chance of another seizure.
If your child has absence seizures, you must always supervise them when they are swimming, in the bath or doing an activity at a height. Your doctor will be able to advise you about what is safe for them.
Resources and support
For more information about epilepsy, visit Epilepsy Australia or call their national helpline on 1300 852 853.
For information and support, visit Epilepsy Action Australia or call 1300 37 45 37.
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Last reviewed: April 2021