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Childhood Absence Epilepsy

Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
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What Is Childhood Absence Epilepsy?

Kids with childhood absence epilepsy have seizures where they "blank out" for a few seconds. Most kids will grow out of the seizures in adolescence.

What Do Absence Seizures Look Like?

Absence seizures look like staring spells. They can happen up to 100 times a day. Because the seizures can look like daydreaming, they often go unnoticed. Sometimes, they're misdiagnosed as ADHD.

A typical absence seizure starts suddenly in the middle of activity and ends abruptly. During one, a child might:

  • "blank out" or have staring spells that last 3 to 15 seconds
  • flutter their eyes or look upward
  • not be aware of what's going on during the seizure
  • immediately return to normal activity after the seizure and not know it happened

Some children also blink repetitively, smack or chew on their lips, or rub their hands together. These are called automatisms.

What Causes Childhood Absence Epilepsy?

Childhood absence epilepsy is caused by genetic changes (mutations). Many children have a relative with childhood absence epilepsy. Other causes include brain injury or infection. People with some medical conditions can also have absence seizures. Sometimes kids with absence seizures can have other types of seizures too..

How Is Childhood Absence Epilepsy Diagnosed?

Childhood absence epilepsy is diagnosed by a pediatric neurologist (a doctor who treats brain, spine, and nervous system problems). Breathing very fast (hyperventilating) can bring on absence seizures in most kids with childhood absence epilepsy. So the doctor may ask a child to do this in the office or before some tests.

Other tests may include:

  • EEG to see brain waves/electrical activity in the brain
  • VEEG, or video electroencephalography (EEG with video recording)
  • MRI scans are rarely needed in this condition

How Is Childhood Absence Epilepsy Treated?

Absence seizures usually get better with medicines. If medicines don't control the seizures, sometimes doctors will prescribe a special diet, such as a ketogenic diet. A ketogenic diet is a strict high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet that can sometimes reduce seizures.

How Can Parents Help?

Kids with childhood absence epilepsy almost always lead a normal life. Help your child:

  • Take medicines as prescribed.
  • Avoid known seizure triggers such as lack of sleep or stress.

Some kids with childhood absence epilepsy have trouble with learning, behavior, concentration, and attention. Get help from tutors and specialists early on to support academic, social, and emotional success.

It's important to keep your child safe during a seizure. So make sure that other adults and caregivers (family members, babysitters, teachers, coaches, etc.) know what to do. Unlike with some other types of seizures, injuries rarely happen during a childhood absence epilepsy seizure.

Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
Date reviewed: February 2021