A convulsion is an episode in which you experience rigidity and uncontrolled muscle spasms along with altered consciousness. The spasms cause jerky motions that generally last a minute or two.

Convulsions can occur during certain kinds of epileptic seizures, but you can have convulsions even though you don’t have epilepsy. Convulsions can be a symptom of a number of conditions, including a sudden fever spike, tetanus, or very low blood sugar.

Keep reading to learn more about what causes them and what to do if someone is having a convulsion.

People use the words “convulsions” and “seizures” interchangeably, but they’re not exactly the same thing.

A seizure involves bursts of electrical activity in the brain. The symptoms of a seizure depend on where in the brain the seizure is happening. There are many different types of seizures.

Some types of seizures are so subtle that you might not be aware someone is having one. Others involve the hallmark rigidity or jerky motions of convulsions, which are hard to miss. That’s probably why people tend to associate convulsions with epileptic seizures.

Even if you’ve had convulsions or a seizure or two, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have epilepsy.

Fever (febrile convulsion)

A convulsion caused by fever is called a febrile convulsion. Febrile convulsions usually occur in infants and children who have a sudden spike in body temperature. The temperature change can be so rapid that you may not even be aware of the fever until the convulsion.

Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a chronic neurological condition that involves recurring seizures not caused by another known condition. There are many types of seizures, but a tonic-clonic seizure, otherwise known as grand mal seizure, is the type that usually involves convulsions.

Having had febrile convulsions does not increase the risk of developing epilepsy.

Some conditions that can lead to convulsions or seizures with convulsions are:

Seizures with convulsions can also be a medication reaction or reaction to drugs or alcohol.

Convulsions are easy to spot, with symptoms such as:

symptoms of convulsions
  • lack of awareness, loss of consciousness
  • eyes rolling back in the head
  • face that appears red or blue
  • changes to breathing
  • stiffening of the arms, legs, or whole body
  • jerky movements of the arms, legs, body, or head
  • lack of control over movements
  • inability to respond

These symptoms usually last from a few seconds to several minutes, though they can last longer.

Children may be cranky after a febrile convulsion and some may fall into a deep sleep lasting an hour or more.

If a febrile convulsion was less than five minutes long, call your doctor and make an appointment as soon as possible. Give as many details as you can about what you observed.

WHen to seek emergency care

In the case of a child, go to the emergency room or call an ambulance if:

  • This was the first convulsion your child has had or you’re not certain what happened.
  • The convulsion lasted over five minutes.
  • Your child won’t wake up or looks very sick when the convulsion is over.
  • Your child was already very ill before the convulsion.
  • If your child had more than one convulsion.

Seizures, even with convulsions, don’t always require emergency medical care. Do call 911 if a person:

  • has never had a convulsion or seizure before
  • has a seizure or convulsions lasting more than five minutes
  • has trouble breathing afterward
  • has difficulty walking after the convulsion ends
  • starts to have a second seizure
  • injured themselves during convulsions
  • has heart disease, diabetes, is pregnant, or has other medical conditions

Be sure to tell emergency responders about any known conditions, as well as drugs or alcohol that the person may have taken. If possible, record the convulsion so you can show the doctor.

Your medical history and other symptoms will help guide your doctor as to what testing may be necessary. This may include:

  • blood and urine tests to check for infection or the presence of toxic substances
  • EEG to check electrical activity in the brain
  • imaging tests such as an MRI or CT scan of the brain

When it comes to febrile convulsions in children, there may not be a need for treatment other than to address the cause of the fever. Sometimes your doctor may prescribe medication to use if another febrile convulsion occurs.

If seizures and convulsions become frequent, your doctor may recommend medicines that can help prevent seizures. Treatment options will depend on the cause.

What to do if you’re with someone who’s having a convulsion

It can be unsettling to see someone having convulsions, but it’s important to try to remain calm.

What to do if someone is having a convulsion

  • try to cushion their head with something soft
  • tilt them to one side to ease breathing
  • move anything hard or sharp out of the way so they don’t hurt themselves
  • loosen any clothing around the neck and remove eyeglasses
  • check for a medical ID
  • call for medical assistance
  • stay with them until the convulsion is over and they’re fully aware

What not to do if someone is having a convulsion

  • put anything in their mouth because this presents a choking hazard
  • restrain the person or try to stop convulsions
  • leave a person having a convulsion alone
  • try to lower a child’s fever by putting them in the bathtub during a convulsion

Febrile convulsions are likely to end before you can call for help. Try to lower the fever by taking off extra blankets and heavy clothing. Offer comfort and reassurance.

Consult with your doctor before giving medications. After a convulsion, a child may be irritable for a couple of days. Stick to usual sleep times and allow the child to sleep in their own bed.

Febrile convulsions in children are temporary. Your child may have one and never have another. Or they may experience several over a period of days or weeks. Febrile convulsions aren’t known to cause damage to the brain or to raise the risk of epilepsy. Febrile convulsions tend to run in families. There are usually no long-term problems due to febrile convulsions.

Convulsions can be a singular event. You may never learn the cause or have any ill effects.

The outlook for frequent convulsions or convulsions with seizures depends on the cause and may require short- or long-term treatment. Epilepsy can be effectively managed.

Call your doctor if you or someone close to you has experienced convulsions. While it just may be a one-time thing, convulsions can sometimes indicate a serious medical condition that should be addressed.