Fever fits, or
febrile convulsions as they are properly called, can be a substantial worry
for parents of babies and young children. Thankfully, they rarely cause
serious or lasting problems.
Fever is by far the most common cause of seizures or convulsions in
children under five. Although they can be frightening to witness, it's
reassuring to know that there is little chance of the seizure causing any
serious harm to the child.
Febrile convulsions occur because the bodies of very young children are
not as efficient at regulating temperature as the bodies of older children
Any sudden, sharp rise in temperature can 'irritate' the brain of a small
baby or infant. The brain responds by rapidly firing off brain messages,
which cause the child's body to twitch or shake uncontrollably and can lead
to a brief lack of consciousness.
THE KEY SYMPTOMS
If your child is having a febrile convulsion, he may go blue in the face,
his eyes may roll up to show the whites and his teeth or gums may clamp
together. He may also froth at the mouth and wet himself.
Febrile convulsions usually last only a few seconds or a minute or two at
most. After this enormous burst of energy, the child will often drift into
sleep or come to momentarily and then fall back asleep.
TELL THE DOCTOR
Although there's little chance a convulsion will do lasting damage, it
should be treated as an emergency - just to be safe. The longer the
convulsion continues, the greater the chance it may cause permanent harm.
This is because over-activity in the brain makes large demands on its oxygen
supply and, if there isn't enough left to keep it well oxygenated, this may
cause irreversible damage to small areas.
Call the doctor for medical advice as soon as your child experiences a
fit. The doctor may decide to come out, but chances are it will be over
before he arrives. If the fit continues, a doctor can stop it immediately
with an injection of an anti-convulsant drug.
WHO IS AT RISK?
Children who are aged between one and three are most at risk from febrile
convulsions. Fits of this kind after this age are unusual. By five years
old, a child's temperature control mechanisms will have fully developed, so
any child who has had a tendency to convulsions will probably no longer be
The tendency to react to a sudden rise in temperature in this way often
runs in families. If you or your partner had febrile convulsions as
children, your children are more likely to experience them too. However,
just because one of your children has had febrile convulsions, it does not
follow that any other children you have will experience them as well.
COPING WITH FEVER
You can reduce the risk of a young child having a febrile convulsion by
keeping a close watch on his temperature when he has a fever. There are a
number of signs to look for - young babies may be fretful, irritable, feel
hot and appear flushed.
If you're not certain, take your child's temperature. The safest way to
do this is by placing the thermometer under the armpit. Then leave it there
for at least a minute to get an accurate reading. You should never take a
young child's temperature by mouth, as the mercury-filled glass thermometer
might break in the child's mouth if he bites it.
If your child does have a fever, help to bring his temperature down by
removing his clothing and sponging his head and body with tepid water. A
dose of infant or children's paracetamol can also be very helpful in
bringing down a raised temperature.
Babies under a month old are particularly vulnerable if they develop a
temperature. Telephone for medical advice if you are in any way concerned
about a child's temperature and any associated symptoms, especially if
paracetamol fails to bring the temperature down or if the child is refusing
to take liquids.
A doctor may recommend that a child who has had a febrile convulsion should
have a special brainwave monitoring test, an EEG (electro-encephalogram).
This test is totally painless, and involves being wired to a machine
which records the electrical activity of specific parts of the brain.
Occasionally the doctor may suggest that children who have convulsions take
anti-convulsant medication as a precaution.