What Causes Seizures in Children?

Medically Reviewed By Karen Gill, M.D.
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Infections, brain tumors, and trauma can all result in seizures in children. The most common are febrile seizures. Sometimes, the cause is unknown. Other than first aid and treatment, knowing the underlying cause of seizures can help manage them. Further prevention and treatment techniques depend on the reason a child is experiencing seizures and their type of seizure.

This article explains the main causes of seizures in children, their triggers, and risk factors. It also discusses first aid, outlook, and frequently asked questions about children’s seizures.

Causes of seizures in children 

An aerial view of a toddler riding a tricycle while wearing a helmet.
Gemma can fly/Stocksy United

The types and causes of seizures in children are generally the same or similar to seizures in other age groups.

Types of seizures in children can include:

  • Provoked seizures: These occur as a symptom of an underlying physical cause. They tend to occur as a one-off seizure episode.
  • Epileptic or unprovoked seizures: Epileptic seizures are the result of uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain. Unlike provoked seizures, epileptic seizures occur without an immediate physical trigger. Also, a person must have experienced at least two seizures to qualify for an epilepsy diagnosis.
  • Psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES): PNES occur due to psychiatric brain activity. They differ from provoked and epileptic seizures and do not result from abnormal electrical brain activity.

PNES may resemble epileptic seizures, and they are frequently misdiagnosed as epileptic seizures in children. However, the two are distinct and have separate causes. PNES are caused by psychological distress rather than physical trauma.

Sometimes, the cause of children’s seizures is unknown. Still, the child’s medical team will work with a caregiver to provide the best treatment.

Learn more about PNES, including their causes and treatment.

Fever

Febrile seizures occur only in children. They are a result of a high body temperature. Most febrile seizures occur with a fever of 101°F or more.

Febrile seizures are the most common type of convulsions babies and young children experience. According to the National Institutes of Health, around 2–5% of U.S. children experience a febrile seizure before age 5. 

Most febrile seizures do not cause permanent brain damage and last only a few minutes. 

A singular febrile seizure does not indicate epilepsy. A febrile seizure is a provoked seizure. However, prolonged or reoccurring febrile seizures may increase the risk of a child later developing epilepsy.

Fevers and illness may also trigger seizures in children who experience epilepsy.

Other illness and infection

Illnesses and infections can trigger a provoked seizure. Also, because infections can cause fever, illness may cause febrile seizures.

Researchers from a 2021 study suggest that seizures may be a principal symptom of acute COVID-19 in children.

Sickness, physical stress, and dehydration may also trigger seizures in children with epilepsy. Severe infections or infections of the brain, such as meningitis, may also cause epilepsy to develop in people with no epilepsy diagnosis.

Genetic differences 

Differences in a child’s genes can cause epileptic seizures. This can happen if genetic differences cause structural or functional impairments that affect the brain’s typical electrical activity.

Genetic differences may be inherited or occur spontaneously, meaning they occur without being inherited or present in biological parents.

A child may also have seizures as a symptom of other genetic syndromes. For example, Angelman syndrome causes seizures and developmental delays.

Brain injury

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) can cause provoked seizures immediately following the injury or up to several years later.

Also, injury to the brain can contribute to epilepsy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the more severe TBI a person experiences, the higher the chance they may develop epilepsy.

Injuries that may lead to seizures include:

  • whiplash or jolts to the head
  • abusive head trauma, also known as shaken baby syndrome
  • hits or blows to the head
  • injuries that penetrate the head
  • surgery
  • stroke

Birth trauma

Sometimes, an infant may experience trauma during birth or early in life that damages the structure or function of the brain. For example, in some cases, epilepsy can develop in infants if they experience a lack of oxygen at birth or have a low birth weight.

Brain tumor

Brain tumors may lead to seizures. According to a 2016 review, seizures are one of the more common symptoms of brain tumors in children.

Seizures may be the first indication of a brain tumor or occur during the progression of the condition.

However, researchers from the review suggest that the brain tumors most commonly associated with seizures may:

  • have a low mortality rate
  • be low-grade, meaning they are:
    • unlikely to spread
    • slow-growing
    • relatively easily treatable

Other risk factors for seizures in children

According to the Epilepsy Foundation, the following factors may also increase the risk of seizures, epilepsy, or both in children: 

  • a low birth weight
  • exposure to drugs or harmful chemicals
  • having a seizure in the first month of life
  • having structural differences in the brain
  • a family history of epilepsy or febrile seizures
  • conditions such as:
    • cerebral palsy

Learn more about the causes of seizures, including their triggers.

When to seek help for seizures in children

Most seizures are not medical emergencies if the child already has an epilepsy diagnosis. However, seek emergency care for seizures if:

  • It is the child’s first seizure.
  • The seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes.
  • The seizure happened in water.
  • The child sustained an injury before, during, or after the seizure.
  • The child does not seem to be recovering quickly or is having difficulty breathing or resuming their typical behavior.
  • The child also has another underlying condition, such as diabetes.

Never try to stop or constrain a child’s movements during a seizure or put anything into their mouth. Instead, make sure the area is free from hard items and hazards.

A doctor can then start to diagnose the cause of the child’s symptoms and the type of seizures they may be having. This will help with their treatment.

The steps to diagnosis may include an EEG to track the brain’s electrical activity or imaging scans, such as an MRI. Other tests, such as blood tests, may help identify or rule out other conditions.

Outlook for seizures in children

The outlook for children who experience seizures will depend on the type and severity of the seizures.

In some cases, the outlook can be positive. Febrile seizures typically do not cause permanent damage to health. Also, many children grow out of having epileptic seizures by adulthood. Treatment for epilepsy can also help many people live seizure-free.

However, some may experience seizures or require treatment for epilepsy their entire lives. In addition, prolonged or severe seizures can, in some cases, be life threatening. Serious underlying medical causes of seizures in children, such as a lack of oxygen, may also cause complications.

Contact a pediatrician or neurologist for specific information regarding an individualized case.

Read more about treatments for epilepsy.

FAQ

Karen Richardson Gill, MD, has reviewed the following frequently asked questions.

What causes seizures in babies?

Seizures in infants may occur due to genetic differences or trauma to the brain. Trauma can include:

  • an injury, including during or after birth
  • a lack of oxygen
  • an infection
  • a tumor

What is the most common cause of seizures?

A high fever is the most common cause of seizures among infants and young children, according to the National Institutes of Health.  

Are seizures in kids serious?

Factors such as individual differences, the type of seizure, and the underlying cause will determine the seriousness.

Some seizures in children can have positive outcomes and require minimal or short-term treatment. Other times, seizures can be the result of a serious underlying condition. Some seizures can be life threatening without treatment.

Seek emergency care for any child after they experience their first seizure. If you are unsure whether a child’s other symptoms are serious, contact their doctor immediately.

Summary

The causes of seizures in children can vary and depend on the seizure type. One of the most common causes of seizures in children is a high fever. These febrile seizures are not epileptic and can be relatively harmless.

Provoked and epileptic seizures may also occur due to a brain injury. Epileptic seizures in children might also happen due to genetic or structural differences in the brain.

Prolonged seizures can be more serious and might have lasting effects. Seek emergency medical care if the seizure is the child’s first or if it lasts 5 minutes or longer.

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Medical Reviewer: Karen Gill, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Nov 18
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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