January 10, 2021

What do you know about absence seizures?

About Epilepsy

Absence seizures make you stop and stare blankly for a few seconds. Learn about absence seizure symptoms, how they’re diagnosed and treatment options.

When most people think of epilepsy, they picture tonic-clonic seizures where the person falls to the floor and shakes. However, this is just one type of seizure. Many kinds of seizure are much less noticeable – including absence seizures.

So, what is an absence seizure, what do they look like and how are they treated?  

What is an absence seizure?

An absence seizure is a seizure where you lose consciousness and stare blankly for a few seconds. You then regain consciousness and carry on as you were before. You will not be aware that you had a seizure, but may feel confused.

Absence seizures are caused by unusual electrical activity in the brain and they are a form of generalized seizure. This is where the electrical activity happens in all parts of the brain at the same time.

Learn more: What’s the difference between generalized and focal seizures?

Absence seizures are more common in children (around 7 in 10 grow out of them by the time they are adults). However, absence seizures in adults are still fairly common.

You may also have heard people describe absence seizures as ‘petit mal’, which is the old name for them.

Absence seizures symptoms

Because absence seizures are not so noticeable, you may go for months or years without having them diagnosed. A person who has absence seizures can look like they are daydreaming, so teachers, family and friends may not understand what is going on. 

Some people only have a couple of absence seizures each day, but others can have up to 100 or more.

Absence seizures symptoms include:

  • Blank stares that last a few seconds, before you carry on as before
  • You usually won’t fall down
  • You will not speak, listen or understand what people are saying to you
  • You may stop speaking mid sentence
  • Sometimes you might smack your lips, look like you are chewing something or flutter your eyelids.

Absence seizures in children can be challenging because they make it harder to pay attention at school. Children with absence seizures sometimes start misbehaving because they are feeling confused or frustrated. Teachers may also misunderstand what is happening and think the child is simply not focusing.

Learn about childhood seizures: What is juvenile myoclonic epilepsy?

Diagnosing absence seizures

To diagnose the seizures, the doctor will:

  • Take a detailed medical history
  • Ask for a description of the seizures. Providing as much information as possible is really helpful here
  • Use an EEG machine to monitor electrical activity in the brain
  • Order blood tests
  • Do an MRI scan

You could also use Epsy to track when you or your child have absence seizures – this information could help your doctor understand more about what is happening.

Absence seizures treatments

The most common absence seizure treatment is to take anti-epilepsy medications. Your healthcare provider will choose a specific medication depending on the particular type of epilepsy you have. Medications that are often used to treat absence seizures in children and adults include:

  • Divalproex sodium (Depakote)
  • Ethosuximide (Zarontin)
  • Lamotrigine (Lamictal)
  • Valproic acid (Depakene)

Absence seizures can also be controlled by making sure you get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, exercise and avoid stress.

Learn more: absence seizures in adults

Many people who have absence seizures as children grow out of them or find that they are not as frequent once they get older. Read Tiffany’s story to learn about her experience of living with absence seizures as a child and how her seizures changed with time.