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Absence seizures generally last just a few seconds, and are characterized by a blank or "absent" stare. They're also called petit mal seizures. Absence seizures are most common in children and typically don't cause any long-term problems.
Absence seizures usually occur in children between 4 to 12 years old. A child may have 10, 50, or even 100 absence seizures in a given day and they may go unnoticed. Although most children who have typical absence seizures are otherwise normal, absence seizures can hinder learning and affect concentration at school, so treatment must be prompt.
Absence seizures are a type of epilepsy, a condition that causes seizures. Epilepsy is also referred to as a “seizure disorder.” Seizures happen when the brain sends abnormal, erratic electrical impulses. These mixed messages confuse your brain and cause a seizure.
Not everyone who has a seizure has epilepsy. Health experts say a diagnosis of epilepsy can be made after two or more seizures.
Absence seizures often occur along with other types of seizures that cause muscle jerking, twitching, and shaking. But, sometimes absence seizures may cause twitching of the eyelid and facial muscles. If this occurs, another type of seizure called complex partial seizures may be mistakenly diagnosed. However, complex partial seizures begin with an aura or premonition that a seizure is coming whereas absence seizures do not begin with aura. Absence seizures also do not last as long as complex partial seizures, tend to end suddenly, and don’t cause a period of confusion after the seizure. Doctors pay close attention to these details because getting the right diagnosis is essential for effective and safe treatment of seizures.
It's uncommon for absence seizures to continue into adulthood, but it's possible to have an absence seizure at any age.
An irregularity in the brain's normal electrical activity causes absence seizures. But, doctors often don’t know why this happens. Most absence seizures are less than 15 seconds long. It's rare for an absence seizure to last longer than 15 minutes. Absence seizures strike suddenly without any warning signs.
The easiest way to identify an absence seizure is to look for a vacant stare that lasts for a few seconds. People in the midst of having an absence seizure don't speak, listen, or appear to understand. An absence seizure doesn't typically cause you to fall down. You could be in the middle of making dinner, walking across the room, or typing an e-mail when you freeze, then suddenly snap out of it, and continue as you were before the seizure.
These are other possible symptoms of an absence seizure:
If you or your child experiences jerking motions, it may be a sign of another type of seizure taking place along with the absence seizure.
You may have absence seizures repeatedly for years before heading to the doctor for a diagnosis. You may think of or call these symptoms your "staring spells," without thinking of them as a medical problem or a seizure.
An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a test most often used to diagnose absence seizures. This test records the brain's electrical activity and spots any abnormalities that could indicate an absence seizure.
These tests also can help to diagnose absence seizures or rule out other conditions:
Absence seizures can affect your ability to perform at work or school, so it's a good idea to see your doctor about treatment.
Absence seizures can be treated with a number of different antiseizure medications.
Only ethosuximide and valproic acid are FDA approved to treat absence seizures. The drug selected will also depend on what other seizure disorder may be present. Many people who suffer from absence seizures also have generalized seizures and so would need to take one or more of the medications listed above.
Taking your medications exactly as your doctor prescribed is one of the best ways to manage absence seizures. But you can also make some changes in your life to help prevent absence seizures from happening:
Most people with epilepsy live full and active lives with medicine and other lifestyle changes. But, it can be challenging, at times, to manage large and small life events when you have epilepsy. Depending on your age and the severity and type of epilepsy, you may need support with the following:
If you have trouble managing your absence seizures, you may want to work more closely with your doctor to find a better way to treat them.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:
Bayhealth is Southern Delaware’s healthcare leader with hospitals in Dover and in Milford. Bayhealth provides a wide range of medical services, including cardiovascular, cancer, orthopaedics and rehabilitation, pediatrics, respiratory care, sleep care, surgical weight loss and women’s services.