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8/22/23 blog post

when to be concerned about staring spells

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Daydreaming is a normal part of childhood. It provides a space for the mind to explore happy and imaginative thoughts, enhancing your mood and fostering creativity. When a child daydreams, they appear to be staring off into thin air or have a look of absentmindedness. However, persistent or frequent staring spells might indicate a medical condition known as absence seizures.

We asked seizure expert, Gogi Kumar, MD, division chief of neurology, to help us understand the difference between daydreaming and absence seizures, and when to seek medical attention.

what are absence seizures?

Absence seizures are also referred to as petit mal seizures. They are a form of epilepsy that primarily affects children between the ages of four and fourteen. When a child has an absence seizure, they experience a brief loss of consciousness. They usually appear to be staring blankly into space. These staring spells usually last for just a few seconds and can happen multiple times a day.

Unlike other types of seizures, absence seizures are often mistaken as absentmindedness or daydreaming, because they do not usually involve convulsions or jerking movements.

what's the difference between absence seizures and daydreaming?

Recognizing the difference between absence seizures and daydreaming is important in ensuring that your child receives a timely medical evaluation and appropriate treatment. Below are the most common distinguishing features.

  • Frequency and duration: Absence seizures happen frequently throughout the day, sometimes dozens of times. On the other hand, daydreaming episodes are usually less frequent and do not follow a pattern. Daydreaming often occurs when children are bored while absence seizures can occur any time and happen suddenly. Absence seizures usually last for 10 to 20 seconds, while daydreaming can vary in duration and last longer.
  • Loss of awareness: During an absence seizure, a child is not consciously aware of their surroundings, and you may not be able to get their attention during the spell. A child who is daydreaming can usually be brought back to attention with very little effort.
  • Physical movements: When a child is having an absence seizure, they show minimal or no physical movements. However, they may have eye fluttering and eye-rolling as part of the seizure. Children who are daydreaming may be seen fidgeting, changing body positions or making other subtle movements.
  • Impact on daily activities: If a child has absence seizures frequently enough, they can disrupt a child's daily life and academic performance. Daydreaming typically doesn't have any significant effects.

when should I seek medical attention for my child?

While absence seizures are generally not life-threatening, they can impact your child's cognitive development and academic progress if left untreated.

If you begin to notice your child experiencing staring spells that also have characteristics consistent with absence seizures, it's important to contact your child's pediatrician or a pediatric neurologist right away.

Below are some other signs to look out for when your child is having a staring spell:

  • Deterioration in school performance
  • Brief unresponsiveness
  • Changes in behavior

Early detection and intervention can significantly improve a child's quality of life and reduce potential developmental setbacks. If it is recommended that your child be seen by a specialist in neurology, you can schedule an appointment online.

when to be concerned about staring spells
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Gogi Kumar, MD

division chief neurology
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