Many parents of children with epilepsy worry about how the disease will affect their child’s long-term health. Fortunately, the seizures most children experience don’t damage the brain.
Plus, medication and other treatments mean most children with epilepsy can stop having seizures.
Whether a child will have long-term effects from seizures depends on a few things, including:
- The underlying cause of the seizures.
- How well-controlled the seizures are.
- Medication side effects.
- Social, behavioral, and academic supports for the child.
Learn more about what childhood epilepsy is, what causes it, and how to minimize the risk of long-term effects.
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What Is Childhood Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is any condition that causes seizures. Doctors will diagnose epilepsy after a child experiences a seizure and has testing that confirms a risk for future seizures.
A seizure is abnormal electrical activity in the brain. ‘Generalized seizures’ affect the whole brain, while ‘focal seizures’ affect only part of the brain. Seizures can also start in one part of the brain and spread to the rest of the brain.
Seizures can last a few seconds or a few minutes, and rarely can last longer than five minutes. Seizures can cause many different signs and symptoms and you should talk to your doctor about any movements or behaviors that seem out of the ordinary.
What Are Common Childhood Epilepsy Causes?
Parents can pass genes that lead to epilepsy. Or abnormal changes in the brain in the womb or after birth can cause epilepsy. In many cases, however, doctors don’t know the cause of a child’s epilepsy.
The following are risk factors for epilepsy:
- Premature birth.
- Birth problems, such as a lack of oxygen to the baby’s brain.
- Infections, such as meningitis, in the womb or in early childhood.
- Brain tumors.
- Abnormal blood vessels in the brain.
- Brain injury.
What Are the Long-term Effects of Childhood Epilepsy?
About two-thirds of children outgrow epilepsy, and most do not have any long-term impacts.
However, epilepsy can lead to psychological, social, behavioral, or learning impacts that affect children in the long term. This is more likely to happen in kids whose seizures are less well-controlled.
Advocating for supports, inclusion, and accommodations can minimize long-term impacts. Here’s what parents need to know.
Behavioral and self-esteem problems
With some types of seizures, children are more likely to act out. They may become more irritable in the hours or days before a seizure. If teachers respond by punishing children or if kids respond by shunning, it can negatively affect a child’s mood and self-esteem.
It is important to talk about epilepsy with your child’s teachers and coaches, as well as their friends and other parents. Understanding your child’s symptoms will help the people in your child’s life treat them with compassion.
Also, make sure your child has time to rest and destress, and be sure they’re eating a healthy diet. All of these can lower the risk of seizures and behavior problems.
Seizures and learning
In most cases, children will stop having seizures with medication. Sometimes, children may need different types of surgery or a special diet to help manage seizures. But for some children, no available treatments completely eliminate seizures.
Seizures can impact learning in several different ways.
- Children miss instruction at the time of the seizure.
- Children may have less focus leading up to a seizure.
- Children may feel fatigued and have difficulty learning minutes or hours after a seizure.
In addition, teachers may wrongly think a child with seizures has intellectual deficits. Your health providers can work with your teachers to explain the condition and help them adapt their teaching to your child. If seizures are impacting a child’s learning, teachers may need to repeat concepts or provide more one-on-one support.
Finally, in rare cases, prolonged seizures can cause damage to the brain. If your child has a seizure that lasts more than five minutes, seek medical attention right away. Your doctor can also prescribe medication to stop a prolonged seizure in the future.
Impacts of parental limitations
Concern about accidents during a seizure can cause parents to keep their children out of sports or other social activities. This can affect children’s social development and confidence. While parental fear is understandable, it can limit a child’s social and emotional growth.
It’s important to look for activities that children with epilepsy can enjoy. Parents can speak to coaches and other leaders about any safety modifications they can make. Coaches can be great role models in normalizing epilepsy and supporting children with differences.
Side effects of seizure medications
Most kids will not have side effects to medications, but all medications have risks of side effect occurring. These side effects can include:
- Memory problems.
- Impaired liver function.
Such side effects can affect how your child interacts with others and learns in school. If your child is struggling with medication side effects, talk to their doctor. There are now many medication options available to treat seizures.
For more information please visit UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh’s Pediatric Epilepsy Center webpage. For inquiries to or interest in the Epilepsy Center or to make a referral, schedule an appointment, or request an evaluation for a child or teen, please call 412-692-6928.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Epilepsy in children and teens: Diagnosis and Treatment. Link
American Academy of Pediatrics. Seizures and epilepsy in children. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frequently asked questions about epilepsy. Link
Epilepsy Foundation. Causes of epilepsy in children. Link
Epilepsy Foundation. Epilepsy: Impact on the life of the child. Link
Epilepsy Society. Childhood epilepsy syndromes. Link
Medline Plus. Epilepsy in children. Link
From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.