Absence Seizures (Petit Mal)

An absence seizure (also called a “petit mal” seizure) is a form of epilepsy that leads to repeated lapses of consciousness. The episodes usually last less than 15 seconds and may appear as staring spells.

These seizures almost always begin in childhood, usually around 6 to 12 years of age, and they tend to run in families. Absence seizure usually stop when the child reaches puberty.

Absence seizures usually have no lasting effect on intelligence or other brain functions.

Absence seizres may occur with other types of seizures, such as generalized tonic-clonic seizures (grand mal seizures), twitches or jerks (myoclonus), or sudden loss of muscle strength (atonic seizures).

Symptoms Of Absence Seizures

Some people with absence seizures have purposeless movements during their seizures, such as hand fumbling, lip smacking, chewing, a jerking arm or  blinking eyes. Others have no noticeable symptoms except for brief times when they are “out of it.”

The child is usually unaware that he or she had a seizure and can Immediately resume whatever he or she was doing before the seizure.

The episodes may have the following characteristics:

  • Occur several times a day
  • Occur for weeks to months before being noticed
  • Interfere with school
  • Be mistaken for lack of attention or misbehavior

Unexplained difficulties in school and learning difficulties may be the first sign of petit mal seizures.

If a child is walking, he or she may stop for a moment and resume a few seconds later, usually without falling.

Treatment Of Absence Seizures

Treatment may be considered if the episodes or interfering with the child’s normal function or are considered to put the child at risk.

Medications that may be considered for absences seizures include ethosuximide and methsuximide, which are used to minimize the number of seizure episodes.

© 2010 Vivacare. Last updated May 20, 2013.

Reference: The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

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Additional Resources

Absence Seizures (Petit Mal) Overview (link to Epilepsy Foundation)
Absence Seizures of Childhood (link to Epilepsy.com)
Petit Mal Seizure (link to NIH)
Zarontin (ethosuximide) Overview (link to epilepsy.com)
En Espanol
Ausencias t�picas (link to National Library of Medicine)
Etosuximida (Zarontin) (link to NIH)
Mesuccimida (Celontin) (link to NIH)
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Author Info

Dr. John Absher