Epilepsy is a disorder that causes seizures or convulsions due to abnormal activity of brain cells, called neurons. The disorder may be caused by head injury, trauma, brain tumors or infections, such as meningitis or encephalitis. Conditions at birth or before birth also may lead to epilepsy, including an insufficient supply of oxygen to the brain, bleeding in the brain or abnormal blood vessels. But in many cases, the cause is unknown.

Some types of epilepsy run in families and have been tied to specific genes. Epilepsy may occur at any age, but it typically develops in early childhood.

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The Epilepsy Center at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital is dedicated to the comprehensive diagnosis and treatment of infants, children and adolescents with epilepsy. Our neurologists and neurosurgeons are among the nation's leading epilepsy experts and will work closely with you to identify the specific type of seizure affecting your child and develop the best possible treatment plan.

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Most children with epilepsy experience more than one type of seizure. The two types of seizures are generalized or partial, depending on the part of the brain where a seizure is triggered.

Generalized Seizures

Generalized seizures result from electrical impulses arising from the entire brain. They typically occur without warning. There are six types of generalized seizures.

  • Tonic-clonic ("grand-mal" seizure) — Your child will lose consciousness and may also collapse. The child's body becomes stiff and begins jerking. Finally, your child will fall into a deep sleep. During grand-mal seizures, injuries such as tongue-biting can occur, as well as a loss of bladder control.
  • Absence seizure ("petit mal" seizure) — Your child will lose awareness and stare blankly for a few seconds. Usually, there are no other symptoms. These seizures may occur several times a day.
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In the United States, about 2 million people have epilepsy, including 300,000 children under the age of 14.

To determine if your child has the condition, a team of doctors and other medical professionals at the UCSF Epilepsy Center will assess your child's medical condition and determine the type of seizures your child is having. This information is essential in determining the best treatment for your child.

The first step is documenting your child's medical history as well as your immediate family's medical history. We will ask many questions about what occurs when your child has a seizure. Some of the questions will include:

  • How old was your child when the seizures began?
  • Describe what happened when your child had his or her first seizure.
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Your child's team of doctors and health professionals will design a treatment plan for your child's specific needs, a plan that may include more than one kind of treatment. Your child also may be referred to additional doctors or other medical professionals.

Most medical treatments involve some risks or complications. We will explain possible risks or complications related to your child's treatments. Feel free to ask questions about your child's treatment.


In many cases, seizures can be successfully prevented with medications. There are more than 20 medications used to treat seizures in children. Many of these are not formally approved for children but are very commonly used in the pediatric population.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

Related Information

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Pediatric Brain Center

Pediatric Epilepsy Center of Excellence
1825 Fourth St., Fifth Floor
San Francisco, CA 94158
Phone: (415) 353-2437
Fax: (415) 353-2400
Appointment information

Neurosurgery Clinic
1825 Fourth St., Fifth Floor, 5A
San Francisco, CA 94158
Phone: (415) 353-7500
Fax: (415) 353-2889
Appointment information

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