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'He was stiff and making jerking movements': How Rachel's son having a fever caused a seizure.

Ask any group of parents and chances are, there’s at least one who’s watched their child have a febrile convulsion – a seizure or fit associated with a fever.

It’s a terrifying experience for mums and dads, with many recalling it as one of the worst moments of their parenting lives.

Melbourne mum of two Rachel’s experience was no different. She watched her 20-month-old son Benaiah have what was discovered to be a febrile convulsion when they were on holidays overseas; her fear compounded by a language barrier.

“My husband Deelan and I were in Mauritius in March 2017 with our then 20-month-old son, Benaiah, to visit family,” Rachel tells Mamamia. 

“One night we noticed Benaiah had an infrequent cough. We put it down to swallowing a bit of salt water and weren’t too worried.

“When we woke the next day and it was still happening, I concluded he seemed to have a sore throat and just a little bit of a temperature. We grabbed their equivalent of Panadol and gave him the appropriate dose, and did so until the next day.”

Rachel found that Benaiah’s temperature was the same the next afternoon, so she gave him some more medicine and prepared for a family visit.

“He was happy in the bath, splashing me and singing. At the end of the bath he still felt warm, so I sent Deelan to see if he could grab something like Nurofen.”

febrile convulsions
From a cough and a slight temperature, Beaiah's condition took sudden turn for the worst. Image: Supplied.

That was when events took a sudden turn.

“As I was dressing Benaiah, I turned to get a piece of clothing and heard a funny noise - when I turned back he was seizing; he had gone as stiff as a board and was making small, jerking movements.

“The seizure lasted about 20 seconds and once it stopped he began to cry. The crying settled but he was very ‘out of it’ for the next half hour as we made our way to the local emergency medical service.”

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At the hospital, Benaiah was diagnosed with a temperature caused by a throat infection which was also beginning to affect his chest.

“The hospital told us it was a febrile convulsion, but I had a suspicion it was that because I’m an early childhood educator and had heard of them before,” Rachel said.

After seeking help, the family decided to return to their accommodation, administering the prescribed medication, and supervising Benaiah closely.

“He was ready to be up and running around the next day, and was fine by the end of our holiday."

Benaiah hasn’t had another febrile convulsion since, but the memory of that one is something Rachel will always remember as intense.

“It was rather scary at the time, especially because when Benaiah was fitting, Deelan’s family gathered around and were talking in Creole loudly. Of course they were trying to help, but I didn’t know what they were saying, and what it meant for my son.”

Rachel recalled that the hospital told her something interesting – that her having a febrile convulsion when she was 18-months-old increased the likelihood for her child.

“What I wish I had known beforehand is that my having had a febrile convulsion increased the risk of my children having one,” she said.

Dr Nadine Sharples, a General Paediatrician and Paediatric Emergency Physician in Melbourne, answered the most common questions parents have about febrile convulsions:

1. What is a febrile convulsion?

“A febrile convulsion is a seizure or a fit associated with a fever.

“This usually occurs when a child has a viral illness and the child's fever goes up quickly; the convulsion may be the first indicator that the child is unwell.

“Febrile convulsions usually occur between six months and six years of age, and are very common (one in 30 children have them).

“The most important thing for families to know is that simple febrile convulsions (those lasting less than 15 minutes and only one seizure in a 24-hour period) are benign.

“I am often asked whether febrile convulsions cause brain damage or impair the child's development. This is not the case. Even in children who have seizures lasting up to an hour, they almost never cause harm.”

2. Is a febrile convulsion life-threatening?

“Febrile convulsions are very frightening for families, but they are not life threatening.

“During a convulsion, a child often loses consciousness and becomes stiff with jerking of the arms and legs, head jerking, and the child may go blue around the lips.

“Usually febrile convulsions last for 30 seconds to two minutes, which can seem so much longer when you are with your child. The child can often be drowsy afterwards, but generally returns to their usual selves quickly.”

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3. How common are febrile convulsions?

“One child in 30 has a febrile convulsion.

“In a child who has had one, and is otherwise fit and healthy, with normal development and no family history of epilepsy, the chance of them going on to have epilepsy is no more than other children.

“It’s important to note there is an increased chance of febrile convulsions in those children whose parents have had one. It’s usually in the order of a 10-20 percent chance. However, there are multiple genes involved, so you can’t say just because a parent has had one, it means their child will definitely be affected.”

4. How do you know whether to call an ambulance or go to hospital?

“For children who have their first convulsion, families should always call an ambulance and be assessed by a medical professional. For febrile convulsions to be diagnosed a child needs to be examined to ensure there is no other cause.

“About 30 per cent of those children who have febrile convulsions go on to have future another in their next febrile illness, so some families become used to managing these episodes at home.

“In those children, the seizure lasts less than five minutes and they child returns to their usual selves fairly quickly - so there is no urgency to go to the Emergency Department.

"Instead, families may choose to see their local doctor (General Practitioner) to look for the cause of the fever; such as an ear infection.”

“Children grow out of febrile convulsions by about school age.”

5. What can parents do if they suspect a febrile convulsion?

“Unfortunately, there is no medication to prevent febrile convulsions from occurring. Using regular paracetamol or ibuprofen for your child will not prevent a febrile convulsion.

“Paracetamol and ibuprofen are useful medications while the child is unwell with a fever, as it makes them feel better, and if the child feels comfortable they are more able to keep up with fluids which are so important while your child is unwell.”

As scary as febrile convulsions can be for parents, the best thing you can do for your child is to stay as calm as possible.

“Make sure that your child is in a safe place - on the floor, and their head is not hitting anything. Be reassuring to your child. Try to time the convulsion so that you know if it is going on for five minutes and you will need to call an ambulance."

Dr Sharples also recommends the family information sheet from The Royal Children's Hospital website and is useful to have at home to read again when your child has recovered.

Has your child suffered a febrile convulsion? Tell us in the comments section below.

Nama Winston has had a decade-long legal career (paid), and a decade-long parenting career (unpaid). Now a Mamamia Contributor and freelance writer, Nama uses her past experience as a lawyer to discuss everything from politics, to parenting. You can follow her on Instagram: @namawinston and Facebook: @NamaWinston.

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