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The University of Chicago Medicine - Comer Children's Hospital

Epilepsy and Seizures in Children

What is epilepsy?

If your child has one seizure that occurs as a direct result of a single event, such as illness, injury or trauma, this is a provoked seizure, which is not necessarily indicative of epilepsy. Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain characterized by recurrent unprovoked seizures -- meaning seizures that seem to occur without a direct cause. However, with a thorough evaluation and diagnostic testing, it is often possible to identify the underlying cause of a child's epilepsy. Yet in some cases, the exact cause may still remain unclear.

After two or more unprovoked seizures, your child may be diagnosed with pediatric epilepsy. If your child's epilepsy is drug-resistant, meaning his or her seizures cannot be controlled with two or more treatment courses of anticonvulsant medication, this is often referred to as intractable epilepsy or refractory epilepsy.

What is a seizure?

A seizure is a sudden surge of abnormal electrical activity in the brain that disrupts normal brain activity.

Not all seizures look or feel the same. There are different types of seizures and three stages of a seizure. Each type and stage can have varying signs and symptoms. The image that generally comes to mind when someone pictures a seizure is uncontrollable jerking movements -- a classic symptom associated with tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizures. Yet, there are other observable signs of seizures. Some are quite obvious, and others can be difficult to detect.

What are seizure triggers?

There is a broad range of potential factors that can trigger seizures in children and adolescents. If your child has reflex epilepsy, his or her seizures are consistently triggered by something specific. Triggers are unique to each individual and may include:

  • Missing doses of anti-seizure medications
  • Health concerns, such as illness, fever, stress, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, dehydration or hormonal changes
  • Flashing or flickering lights, busy patterns, or even certain colors
  • Certain foods, medications, drugs, alcohol or smells
  • Certain strong smells or fumes
  • Environmental factors, such as lightness, darkness, weather, air pressure or temperature

If your child has specific seizure triggers, it's important to know what they are so he or she can learn to avoid them.

My child had a seizure. Does this mean my child has epilepsy?

If your child has one seizure, it may or may not mean that your child has epilepsy. However, your child may be diagnosed with epilepsy if he or she has two or more unprovoked seizures. Our specialists at the Pediatric Epilepsy Center have the expertise and sophisticated technology to conduct a thorough medical assessment and provide a definitive diagnosis, enabling us to develop the best treatment plan for your child and your family.