An absence seizure is the term for a type of seizure involving staring spells. This type of seizure is a brief (usually less than 15 seconds) disturbance of brain function due to abnormal electrical activity in the brain.
Seizure - petit mal; Seizure - absence; Petit mal seizure; Epilepsy - absence seizure
Seizures result from overactivity in the brain. Absence seizures occur most often in people under age 20, usually in children ages 6 to 12.
In some cases, the seizures are triggered by flashing lights or when the person breathes faster and more deeply than usual (hyperventilates).
Most absence seizures last only a few seconds. They often involve staring episodes. The episodes may:
- Occur many times a day
- Occur for weeks to months before being noticed
- Interfere with school and learning
- Be mistaken for lack of attention, daydreaming or other misbehavior
Unexplained difficulties in school and learning difficulties may be the first sign of absence seizures.
During the seizure, the person may:
- Stop walking and start again a few seconds later
- Stop talking in mid-sentence and start again a few seconds later
The person usually does not fall during the seizure.
Right after the seizure, the person is usually:
- Wide awake
- Thinking clearly
- Unaware of the seizure
Specific symptoms of typical absence seizures may include:
- Changes in muscle activity, such as no movement, hand fumbling, fluttering eyelids, lip smacking, chewing
- Changes in alertness (consciousness), such as staring episodes, lack of awareness of surroundings, sudden halt in movement, talking, and other awake activities
Some absence seizures begin slower and last longer. These are called atypical absence seizures. Symptoms are similar to regular absence seizures, but muscle activity changes may be more noticeable.
Exams and Tests
The doctor will perform a physical exam. This will include a detailed look at the brain and nervous system.
An EEG (electroencephalogram) will be done to check the electrical activity in the brain. People with seizures often have abnormal electrical activity seen on this test. In some cases, the test shows the area in the brain where the seizures start. The brain may appear normal after a seizure or between seizures.
Blood tests may also be ordered to check for other health problems that may be causing the seizures.
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Marcdante KJ, Kliegman RM. Seizures (paroxysmal disorders). In: Marcdante KJ, Kliegman RM, eds. Nelson Essentials of Pediatrics. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 181.
Wiebe S. The epilepsies. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 403.
Reviewed By: Joseph V. Campellone, MD, Department of Neurology, Cooper Medical School at Rowan University, Camden, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.