Epilepsy involves recurrent seizures that can occur without a known provoking cause such as fever or brain infection. Febrile seizures may occur in infants and young children who have a fever, but they are not a form of epilepsy.

Seizures are uncontrolled bursts of electrical activity in your brain. They have many possible causes and triggers, such as:

  • fever
  • low blood sugar
  • head trauma

People who have epilepsy can experience seizures with or without a trigger.

Febrile seizures are not a type of epilepsy. They’re isolated seizures that can develop in infants or young children in the presence of a high fever, which is often caused by an ear infection, the flu, or another common condition.

They usually aren’t serious, even though they can be worrisome. Most children who experience febrile seizures don’t develop complications.

Continue reading to learn more about the differences between epilepsy and febrile seizure.

Here’s a look at the symptoms of epilepsy and febrile seizures.

Epilepsy symptoms

Epilepsy involves repeated seizures. The type of seizures you develop depends on which type of epilepsy you have. Some seizures can be so subtle that the only symptom might be zoning out for a few seconds.

Potential seizure symptoms include:

  • confusion
  • changes in your emotions or ability to think
  • jerking movements of your arms and legs
  • loss of consciousness
  • an inability to respond
  • a blank stare
  • lip-smacking
  • uncontrolled crying or laughing

When people think of seizures, they often think of generalized tonic-clonic seizures, which were previously called grand mal seizures. These seizures occur in two phases:

  • In the tonic phase:
    • All muscles stiffen.
    • The person may let out a groan or cry.
    • They lose consciousness and fall to the floor.
  • In the clonic phase:
    • Arms and legs begin to jerk rapidly and rhythmically.
    • The jerking slows down and eventually stops after several minutes.

In either phase, the person may bite their tongue or cheek.

Learn more about types of seizures.

Febrile seizure symptoms

Febrile seizures, like all seizures, can be categorized as simple (also known as focal) or complex (also known as generalized).

Simple seizures include movement or stiffening of one area of your body without loss of consciousness, and they last for up to 2 minutes. They start focally, with one body part moving independently of the others. They don’t happen more than once in 24 hours

Complex seizures involve the impairment of consciousness, with or without physical movements. They can last from a few seconds to around 2 minutes. They can happen more than once in 24 hours.

Epilepsy has many possible causes and can sometimes develop without a known cause. Febrile seizures are triggered by fevers.

Epilepsy causes

In many cases, doctors can’t identify the underlying cause of epilepsy. About 1 in 3 people with epilepsy have a family member who also has it, which suggests that genetics play a role.

It can also result from a brain injury due to any of the following causes:

Febrile seizure causes

Febrile seizures can occur when a young child has a fever higher than 100.4°F (38°C). The fever may be triggered by common infections such as:

Here’s a look at some of the risk factors for epilepsy and febrile seizures.

Epilepsy risk factors

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, risk factors for epilepsy include:

  • early birth or low birth weight
  • alcohol or drug misuse
  • lengthy febrile seizures
  • trauma or lack of oxygen during birth
  • late stage Alzheimer’s disease
  • seizures in the first month of life
  • family history of epilepsy or fever-related seizures
  • bleeding in the brain
  • atypical brain development
  • seizures that occur within days of a head injury
  • atypical blood vessels in the brain
  • serious brain injury or lack of oxygen to the brain
  • a brain infection such as meningitis or encephalitis
  • cerebral palsy
  • ischemic stroke
  • mental disability
  • brain tumors

Febrile seizure risk factors

Febrile seizures are slightly more common in boys than in girls. They occur in 2 to 5 out of 100 children. They typically happen between the ages of 6 months and 5 years.

Children with the following risk factors are more likely to experience a seizure when they have a fever:

  • preexisting neurologic impairment
  • family history of seizures
  • developmental delay
  • decreased zinc and iron levels
  • smoking or stress in the birthing parent during pregnancy

Children who have at least one febrile seizure have a slightly greater chance of developing epilepsy later in life.

It’s important to get medical attention if you or your child experiences your first seizure. You should also seek immediate medical attention if you or your child develops a new type of seizure or new seizure symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends calling emergency medical services if:

  • the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes
  • a second seizure occurs after the first
  • the person has trouble breathing or waking up from the seizure
  • the person is injured during the seizure
  • the seizure happens in water
  • the person who had a seizure is pregnant
  • the person who had a seizure has diabetes and loses consciousness

Doctors use a variety of tests to diagnose epilepsy and determine which subtype of epilepsy you have, such as:

  • a review of your personal and family medical history
  • questions about your symptoms
  • a physical exam
  • blood and urine tests
  • electroencephalography
  • brain MRI

These are the treatment options for epilepsy and febrile seizures.

Epilepsy treatment

Epilepsy is primarily treated with antiseizure medications such as:

  • sodium valproate (Dyzantil, Epilim, Episenta, Epival)
  • topiramate (Topamax, Topiragen)
  • carbamazepine (Tegretol, Curatil)
  • lamotrigine (Lamictal and others)
  • levetiracetam (Keppra, Desitrend)

Avoiding triggers may help you reduce your seizure frequency.

Learn more about seizure triggers.

Febrile seizures treatment

Febrile seizures often don’t need treatment. If your child has recurrent febrile seizures, their doctor may prescribe medications to prevent seizures.

Epilepsy often isn’t preventable, but you may be able to avoid some of its causes, such as traumatic brain injury, by:

  • wearing proper safety equipment when playing contact sports or riding a bike
  • wearing a seatbelt when in a motor vehicle
  • making sure children are properly fitted in booster seats
  • avoiding driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol

Febrile seizures are also largely not preventable, but you may be able to minimize your child’s risk by taking steps to avoid infections that can cause a fever and treating high fevers as directed by your child’s pediatrician.

Epilepsy is defined as recurrent seizures without a known provoking cause, such as a fever or brain infection. Febrile seizures can occur in young children who develop a very high fever. Febrile seizures are not a form of epilepsy.

Epilepsy is primarily treated with antiseizure medications. Febrile seizures often don’t require treatment unless they happen frequently, in which case a doctor may prescribe medications.