Absence seizures and staring spells

Let us talk about another kind of childhood seizures called Absence seizures or at times Petit Mal seizures. Childhood absence epilepsy as the name suggests starts off in childhood. The seizures are subtle and thus may escape detection from even doting parents. Most of the time, it is the teachers in school who first report that the child at times is noted to “stare” or “daydream”. At times the school grades start falling and this brings the child to medical attention.

Absence seizures as the name suggests are short duration seizures where-in the child is “absent”. By that I mean that for the short time (few seconds to a minute)  during which the child is having a seizure, he or she is not aware of the immediate surroundings. This is because even though an Absence seizure is brief, it is a generalized seizure (meaning the whole brain has a seizure and thus malfunctions for that few seconds). It is different from a generalized convulsion in that you do not seek the violent shaking movements of the arms and legs. Thus it is subtle and may escape detection in the earlier years.

Absence seizures need to be treated. The reason for this is that the seizures are frequent, at time hundreds in a day and these frequent seizures impair the cognitive development of the child. The diagnosis is relatively straight forward and your physician might make it on the basis of a good history. An electroencephalogram (EEG) study may shown the characteristic EEG pattern of Absence epilepsy confirming the diagnosis. An imaging study is usually not needed unless there are some atypical features in the presentation.

Once the diagnosis is made, Absence seizures can be readily controlled with anti-epileptic drugs. Two drugs are commonly used for this kind of epilepsy: ethosuximide and valproate. Children usually do not need to be on anti-epileptic drugs for prolonged length of time and they usually outgrow these seizures by the time they reach the age of 17.

Dr. Sethi

9 thoughts on “Absence seizures and staring spells

  1. I have Petit Mal seizures that were caused by trauma (a head injury when I was 27) I am now 60 and medication no longer does more than make them less frequent. I’ve had to give up driving but so far I’ve managed to keep a job although I don’t know how much longer that will last. I notice there is little or nothing printed or said about this type of problem….This makes me nervous.

  2. Dear Sue,
    what you refer to as Petit Mal seizures are more likely complex partial seizures. You can read about them on my website http://braindiseases.info.
    There are now many effective new medications available which I am sure would help in controlling them. Once seizures are well controlled you can even drive. My advise to you would be to consult a neurologist.

    Personal Regards,
    Nitin Sethi, MD

  3. Hi Dr Sethi,
    I am a teacher and I have a student who is exhibiting these types of behaviors:
    staring episodes, often says he can’t remember something we just talked about 30 seconds prior, he said recently that he feels like his “brain just wouldn’t work sometimes,” he has frequent meltdowns, easily agitated (but not aggressive), social (but very sensitive and easily hurt or offended), seems to have a low threshold for frustration and emotions escalate quickly, and he seems to overly react in situations when he feels physically hurt (if a ball hits him on any part of his body he is very upset, needs time to calm and he complains of feeling lots of pain).
    Could all of these symptoms be related to some type of seizure activity?
    Thank you for you help.

    1. Hello My Friend… I am writing in concern of your student in whom you think my be having Absence Seizures. I started my AS about 3 or so years ago, right after my best friend passed away suddenly. I am now 60. I definitely think it would be a good idea if you didcussed this with your student’s parents, as I am sure there will be some kind of seizure med he can take that will help him. He definitely needs to be seen by a dr. I only have the spacing off with mine and also no remembrance of anything while I am going through the seizure, no persoality changes or aggitation, but with all his problems he could be in danger if driving a car, swimming, or even riding a bike etc. If you would like to write me… my e-mail address is nancierose@msn.com

      God Bless,

  4. Hello! I love the information you share! My daughter was diagnosed with Epilepsy (Generalized Absense) I host a blog journaling her seizures, medication, information and my personal experinces. She has senitivity to bright lights (mostly false light) and loud noises. Could you please visit my (her) blog and give feedback? Thank you!


    1. Dear Jaina,
      thank you for writing in to me. I did attempt to visit your blog but got a message that the blog does not exist any more. Maybe you gave me the wrong URL. I shall be happy to visit your blog and add a comment or two.

      Personal Regards,

      Nitin Sethi, MD

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