What Are Absence Seizures?


By Adrian Sparrow
NeuLine Health


An absence seizure is a type of generalized onset seizure, beginning in both sides of the brain simultaneously. Children make up the majority of absence seizure diagnoses and usually outgrow them. However, these seizures can sometimes continue into adulthood. 

Absence seizures, formerly called ‘petit mal’ seizures, are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain that leads to a short lapse of consciousness or a period of ‘zoning out.’


There are two types of absence seizures: typical and atypical. 

Typical absence seizures are the most common. The person suddenly stops whatever they are doing, even if they’re in the middle of a sentence. They may appear to be staring into space, or their eyes might turn up, and eyelids flutter. These seizures usually only last 10 seconds with immediate recovery.

An atypical absence seizure still starts with a blank look but with a slower onset. Unlike a typical absence seizure, there are usually changes in muscle movement. Blinking, smacking lips, or rubbing fingers together are possible presentations. These seizures also last longer, at 20 seconds or more. 


After the seizure, the person has no memory of the incident. Some people have multiple episodes a day, which can interfere with school and other daily routines. 

Absence seizures rarely cause physical injury. They don’t usually involve muscle spasms such as in a grand mal (also known as tonic-clonic) seizure. 

Children who are most at risk for absence seizures are between 4 and 14, but because absence seizures are so brief and often look like normal daydreaming, they can be missed for months or years before the person receives a diagnosis. 

If absence seizures occur several times in a day or close together, the person can be confused and lose track of the world around them. They can miss instruction from teachers or have incomplete work. The first clue for many parents is when the child starts having trouble in school. 

Scientists aren’t sure what causes absence seizures, but research suggests that genetics plays a role. 


Caregivers or teachers who have witnessed the child having a seizure should write a detailed description of what happened for healthcare providers. An EEG will be performed if the events sound like a seizure or have similar symptoms. The EEG will check the brain’s electrical activity to detect patterns usually seen in absence seizures. 


Absence seizures can be mistaken for other types of seizures, so it’s important to tell your doctor of any concerns right away. Anti-seizure medication is usually prescribed for absence seizures, starting with the lowest dose until the seizures are controlled. Diets high in fat and low in carbohydrates (such as the ketogenic diet) can reduce seizures. Lack of sleep can trigger seizures, so adequate sleep is vital. People who experience seizures can also wear a medical alert bracelet to let emergency personnel know how to treat them correctly in the event of another seizure.

Absence seizures usually go away by adulthood in 7 out of 10 children. Other children may need seizure medication long-term and may need to change medications in adulthood, depending on risk factors such as the medication’s impact on pregnancy. 

Depending on your state’s laws, somebody with a seizure disorder must be seizure-free for a certain amount of time before being able to drive or learn how. 



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