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Children’s staring spells may warrant attention

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Most children who stare off into space are not actually experiencing seizures. Perhaps they are daydreaming about warmer weather or something they are interested in. If you find you can’t get your child’s attention during these stares, though, it won’t hurt to visit his/her primary care physician.

Your child’s doctor will be able to give a more specific diagnosis based on medical history, or refer you to a specialist for diagnosis.

Absence seizures are brief (usually less than 15 seconds) disturbances in brain function due to abnormal electrical activity in the brain. They involve the entire cortex at once, as opposed to other types of seizures, which may only involve parts of the cortex.

One very common symptom is “staring spells.” If you are unable to interrupt these spells by gently touching your child while he is experiencing one, it is a possible sign of an absence seizure. A person may also stop walking or talking mid-sentence, and is usually wide awake and thinking clearly immediately after the seizure.

Absence seizures occur most commonly in people under age 20, usually in children ages 4 to 12. They can occur as the only type of seizure but can also happen along with other types of seizures such as generalized tonic-clonic seizures, twitches or jerks or sudden loss of muscle strength.

These seizures can occur rarely or up to hundreds of times a day. They may occur for weeks to months before they are noticed, and may interfere with school function and learning. Sometimes, they may be mistaken for a lack of attention or other misbehavior.

Unexplained difficulties in school and learning issues, along with staring episodes, may be the first indication of these seizures.

Many children outgrow these seizures when they reach adulthood. In the meantime, doctors may prescribe anti-seizure medications. They may also restrict driving and other potentially dangerous activities such as swimming or bathing unsupervised.

If your child is diagnosed with absence seizures, be sure to let the teachers and school know. It is important to have seizure plan and share it with the school. If your child is on a sports team, be sure to let the coach know as well.

Dr. Charlotte Jones is an attending pediatric neurologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

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