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Absence Seizures

What are absence seizures?

Absence seizures are a type of epilepsy. This is a condition that causes seizures. Seizures are caused by abnormal brain activity. These mixed messages confuse your brain and cause a seizure. An absence seizure causes you to blank out or stare into space for a few seconds. They can also be called petit mal seizures. Absence seizures are most common in children. They usually don’t cause any long-term problems. They're often set off by a period of very fast breathing (hyperventilation).

Absence seizures often occur in children between ages 4 and 14. A child may have 10, 50, or even 100 absence seizures in 1 day, and you may not notice them. Most children who have typical absence seizures are otherwise normal. But these seizures can get in the way of learning. They can affect concentration at school. This is why getting treatment right away is important.

Not everyone who has a seizure has epilepsy. Often a diagnosis of epilepsy can be made after 2 or more seizures.

Absence seizures often occur along with other types of seizures that cause muscle jerking, twitching, and shaking. Absence seizures may be confused with other types of seizures. Healthcare providers will pay close attention to your symptoms to make the right diagnosis. This is important to ensure safe, effective treatment.

Most absence seizures don't continue into adulthood. But it’s possible to have them at any age.

What causes absence seizures?

Like other kinds of seizures, absence seizures are caused by abnormal activity in a person’s brain. Healthcare providers often don’t know why this happens. Most absence seizures last less than 15 seconds. It’s rare for them to last longer than 15 minutes. They can happen suddenly without any warning signs. Some hereditary conditions may increase the risk for absence seizures.

What are the symptoms of absence seizures?

The easiest way to spot an absence seizure is to look for a blank stare that lasts for a few seconds. People who are having an absence seizure don’t speak, listen, or seem to understand. An absence seizure doesn’t typically cause you to fall down. You could be making dinner, walking across the room, or typing an email when you have the seizure. Then suddenly you snap out of it and continue as you were before the seizure.

These are other possible symptoms of an absence seizure:

  • Being very still

  • Smacking the lips or making a chewing motion with the mouth

  • Fluttering the eyelids

  • Stopping activity, such as suddenly not talking or moving

  • Suddenly returning to activity when the seizure ends

If you have jerking motions, it may be a sign of another type of seizure taking place along with the absence seizure.

How are absence seizures diagnosed?

You may have absence seizures for years before seeing a healthcare provider for a diagnosis. You may have staring spells without thinking of them as a health 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. It spots any problems that might mean an absence seizure. Sometimes the EEG is recorded over a few days (long-term EEG). It may include video at the same time.

These tests also can help to diagnose absence seizures or rule out other conditions:

  • Blood tests

  • Kidney and liver tests

  • CT or MRI scans

  • Spinal tap to test the cerebrospinal fluid 

How are absence seizures treated?

Absence seizures can affect your ability to do your job or go to school. So it’s a good idea to see your healthcare provider about treatment.

These seizures can be treated with different medicines. The type of medicine that your provider advises will also depend on what other seizure disorder you may have. If you have more than 1 type of seizure disorder, you may need to take several medicines.

Can absence seizures be prevented?

Taking your medicines exactly as your healthcare provider 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. These include:

  • Get plenty of sleep each night

  • Find ways to manage your stress

  • Eat a healthy diet

  • Exercise regularly

Living with absence seizures

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:

  • Behavioral and emotional issues.  It's important to get enough sleep and manage stress when you have epilepsy. Stress and lack of sleep can trigger seizures. If you have trouble sleeping, talk with your healthcare provider about how to make sure you get enough sleep. Learn coping methods that will help you manage stress and anxiety.

  • Employment. With correct treatment, people with epilepsy can do just about any job safely and well. But some jobs with a high risk to public safety may not be a choice. Epilepsy is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This law prohibits discrimination against people with epilepsy and other disabilities.

  • Coping with discrimination and stigma . Children and adults with epilepsy may face discrimination. They struggle to overcome the stigma linked to this condition. Teach your family, friends, co-workers, and classmates about your condition. Let them know what to expect and how to help during a seizure.

  • Education. Children with epilepsy may be entitled to special services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Work closely with your child’s teacher and school nurse to help manage epilepsy at school. It’s important to balance safety and fun. Let your child have some age-appropriate independence. Let them do sports and other activities at school, when possible.

  • Driving. Each state has different driving laws for people with epilepsy. Licensing may depend on how severe seizures are and how well they are controlled. Think about using public transportation where it's available. If you keep having absence seizures, it may not be safe for you to drive.

  • Support and online resources.  You may feel alone in dealing with day-to-day life with epilepsy. But many people have epilepsy. You can find local support groups through your provider or local hospital. Many online resources give tools and tips for managing this condition. Online social media support groups bring together people from all over the world who are managing their epilepsy. These groups provide support and encouragement.

If you have trouble managing your absence seizures, work more closely with your provider to find a better way to treat them.

Key points about absence seizures

  • Absence seizures generally last just a few seconds. You may have a blank or absent stare.

  • Absence seizures often occur in children between ages 4 and 14. But they can occur at any age.

  • Absence seizures are easy to miss. But tests and an assessment of symptoms can diagnose them.

  • Healthcare providers can usually help find the right mix of medicines and lifestyle changes to manage absence seizures.

  • Without treatment, these seizures can affect school, work, and relationships.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions, and remember what your healthcare provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your healthcare provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is advised and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your healthcare provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Anne Fetterman RN BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Joseph Campellone MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2022
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.