Symptoms of Absence Seizures

The signs and symptoms can be subtle

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Absence seizures, previously called petit mal seizures, cause brief periods of staring spells that last for a few seconds at a time. The seizures are more common during childhood and adolescence and often resolve by the time a person reaches adulthood.

This article will describe the common symptoms of absence seizures, as well as the rare symptoms and associated medical issues.

Close-up of part of a child's little face with focus on her eyes and nose

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Frequent Symptoms 

Often, absence seizures occur without any noticeable symptoms. They usually cause a person to have a blank stare, sometimes with rapid blinking of both eyes. A person experiencing an absence seizure appears fully awake and conscious but will not respond or interact with others.

The episodes are typically shorter than 10 seconds, so the lack of responsiveness might not seem highly unusual. A person experiencing an absence seizure is generally unaware of the event and will continue with normal activity once the seizure is over.


Absence seizures have a prevalence of about five to 50 per 100,000 people in the general population. It’s estimated that approximately 10% of seizures that occur in children who have epilepsy (a neurological condition caused by electrical disturbances in the brain) are typical absence seizures.

Absence seizures usually begin during early childhood and can continue throughout the teenage years, rarely continuing into adulthood. The episodes generally occur without a specific trigger, but they can be more likely to happen when a child is tired and hasn’t had enough sleep.

Common signs that a child might be having absence seizures include:

  • Seems occasionally distracted 
  • Sometimes doesn’t recall what was said to them 
  • Stares into space with a blank facial expression 
  • Does poorly in school
  • Has episodes of blinking 

These symptoms are not unusual, and many children who don’t have seizures occasionally seem inattentive or bored and might daydream at times.

The main differences between absence seizures and common childhood inattention is that a child who is having an absence seizure is not distracted by something else that is more interesting, and the episodes don’t have an association with boredom.


Absence seizures can often be triggered by hyperventilation. This can happen when a child is having their usual activity, and it can be provoked during a medical examination. Do not try to trigger an absence seizure on your own. This should only be done under medical supervision.

Associated Conditions 

Sometimes absence seizures are the only type of seizure a person has, or they can affect people who have other types of epilepsy.

Research shows that more than half of the children who have absence seizures also have certain neuropsychiatric conditions.

These include:

There is evidence to suggest that some of these disorders may emerge before the seizures begin to happen and that they may persist even when the seizures are adequately treated with medication.

Rare Symptoms 

Sometimes absence seizures are described as atypical. With an atypical absence seizure, a person has the usual features of an absence seizure, which include unresponsive staring and blinking, along with other symptoms. 

Symptoms of atypical absence seizures:

  • Eye fluttering 
  • A change in muscle tone
  • Lip smacking 
  • Mouth chewing movements 
  • Repeated hand motions 

The episodes can last longer than a typical absence seizure but generally not longer than a minute. 

Complications/Sub-group Indications

Absence seizures are not known for specifically causing physical harm or serious neurological complications. These episodes are not associated with falling or injuries.

People with frequent absence seizures may be advised to abstain from driving, depending on the frequency of the events and whether they are well-controlled with medication.

However, people who have absence seizures can have difficulty achieving outcomes that rely on consistent and sustained attention. For example, the episodes can cause problems with learning and test-taking.

One of the characteristics of absence seizures is that they can worsen when a person is treated with Depakote (valproate), a commonly used anti-epilepsy drug.

This medication can sometimes help treat absence seizures. Still, for some people, an increase in the frequency of episodes associated with valproate can be a clue that absence seizures cause the symptoms.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Absence seizures are not life-threatening. However, it is important to get a medical diagnosis and treatment.

If your child begins to have staring spells, periods of unresponsiveness, or inattention, you should make an appointment to see a healthcare provider. Try to describe their symptoms in detail or ask their school teachers to describe them. 

If your child has any of the following, call a healthcare provider or get medical attention right away: 

  • A change in their absence of seizures
  • The seizures last for longer than a minute
  • They seem to be having a different type of seizure, such as episodes characterized by involuntary movements or falling

Additionally, if your child appears to have any side effects related to their medication, you should call a healthcare provider to see whether they need to be evaluated immediately or whether you can wait to make an appointment.


Absence seizures are more common among children than adults. These seizures can be the only type of seizure a person experiences or one of several seizure types for some people with epilepsy.

The episodes range in frequency and are usually spells of staring unresponsively for about 10 seconds. Atypical absence seizures can have mild involuntary movements and may last for 20 seconds or longer.

Usually, absence seizures resolve during adulthood, but they can continue, especially if a person has atypical absence seizures. 

A Word From Verywell

If you or your child has been having staring spells, discussing the episodes with a healthcare provider is important. Absence seizures are not painful or dangerous, but they can cause learning problems and make a person seem like they aren’t paying attention.

These complications can negatively impact a child’s life and will continue to cause problems for as long as the episodes continue. A diagnosis and treatment can often decrease the frequency of absence seizures, which will help prevent these complications.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Family Physician. Absence seizures in children.

  3. Crunelli V, Lőrincz ML, McCafferty C, et al. Clinical and experimental insight into pathophysiology, comorbidity and therapy of absence seizures. Brain. 2020;143(8):2341-2368. doi:10.1093/brain/awaa072

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Types of seizures.

  5. Kessler SK, McGinnis E. A practical guide to treatment of childhood absence epilepsy. Paediatr Drugs. 2019;21(1):15-24. doi:10.1007/s40272-019-00325-x

  6. Epilepsy Foundation. Absence seizures.

By Heidi Moawad, MD
Heidi Moawad is a neurologist and expert in the field of brain health and neurological disorders. Dr. Moawad regularly writes and edits health and career content for medical books and publications.