What Is Childhood Absence Epilepsy?

Kids with childhood absence epilepsy (CAE) have seizures where they "blank out" for a few seconds. Most kids with the typical form of CAE 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
  • have fluttering eyes or look upward
  • not be aware of what's going on during the seizure
  • return immediately to normal activity after the seizure and not know a seizure 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?

CAE is caused by genetic changes or mutations. Many children have a relative with CAE. Sometimes kids with absence seizures can have other types of seizures too.

How Is Childhood Absence Epilepsy Diagnosed?

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

Further testing may include:

  • EEG, or electroencephalography (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 I Help My Child?

Kids with typical childhood absence epilepsy almost always lead a normal life. To help your child, make sure he or she:

  • takes medicines as prescribed
  • avoids 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 other types of seizures, CAE is rarely associated with injury during a seizure.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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