How Seizures Affect Children’s Breathing

Jan 02, 2024
How Seizures Affect Children’s Breathing
If your child has epilepsy, you want to learn as much about it as you can so that seizures are kept to a minimum. Some seizures cause breathing difficulties. Learn what you need to do for your child during a seizure.

If your child has been diagnosed with epilepsy, you’ve joined a select group of parents and children. Researchers estimate almost 500,000 children, or just over half of one percent of children, have epilepsy. 

Board-certified pediatric neurologist Dr. Charles Niesen and our team at AMS Neurology in Pasadena, California, diagnose and treat children with epilepsy. We provide the resources you need to help you and your child navigate this health condition. 

If your child has had a major seizure in which they lost consciousness and fell to the ground, it’s scary. You want to be prepared and know what to do to help your child if they have a seizure. Moreover, you want your child’s school or camp environment to know what to do to help your loved one. 

Preparation is critical because although rare, epilepsy can be fatal. Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP) is a real phenomenon and occurs most often during a seizure, although it also may occur without one. 

Tonic-clonic or grand mal seizures and risk of SUDEP

Major seizures, formerly called grand mal seizures, have two phases: tonic and clonic. During the tonic phase, your child may fall to the ground. Their arms and legs may become completely stiff. Saliva or foam may appear in their mouth. If their chest muscles stiffen, your child will likely have trouble breathing. Your loved one may be gasping for air. 

During the clonic phase, your child’s arms and legs jerk back and forth uncontrollably. If they’re standing, they may fall to the ground. Breathing is still affected. 

A tonic-clonic seizure may interrupt your child’s breathing, producing apnea. If breath isn’t restored quickly, it’s easy for your child’s oxygen level to be depleted to the point where it’s life-threatening. Also, if your child has convulsions and their body is shaking, they may not be able to get enough air into their airway, resulting in suffocation. 

If your child’s epilepsy isn’t well-controlled and they have major seizures that include convulsions, they’re more at risk of SUDEP. Trouble with respiration is common in these types of seizures, and researchers believe breathing difficulty plays a significant role in these deaths. 

Treatment for epilepsy 

Medication is the first line of treatment for epilepsy. It’s critical that you and your child understand how important it is for them to take the medication exactly as prescribed every day. 

No doubt your child doesn’t want to experience a grand mal seizure, and you certainly don’t want them to have to endure it. We employ other methods as well, including a ketogenic diet when indicated, vagus nerve stimulation, and surgery if required. 

Training in helping children who have seizures 

If your child has a tonic-clonic seizure and has trouble breathing, turn your child on their side to prevent choking on saliva or mucus. Don’t place anything in their mouth and don’t attempt to get them to eat or drink anything. Call 911 if the seizure lasts more than five minutes or if your child can’t breathe well after the seizure ends. 

Not all schools have a person trained in seizure disorder. The percentage of secondary school health educators trained to help students with epilepsy seizures varies widely, with a median of 18% who have been trained, according to one study. 

We provide instructions for you and information for your child’s school if your child has epilepsy. Your child may receive accommodations because of their epilepsy diagnosis, especially if learning difficulties are associated with it. About 50% of children who have epilepsy have some issues with learning for which they need help. 

Because of the risk of SUDEP, informing adults about your child’s epilepsy and what to do in case of a seizure is a number one priority. 

Call our office at AMS Neurology or book an appointment online today if you suspect your child has epilepsy. We’re here to help.