Absence seizures are a type of generalised onset seizure, meaning both sides of your brain are affected from the start. In the past absence seizures used to be called petit-mal seizures.
The 2 most common types of absence seizure are typical and atypical.
What happens during an absence seizure?
If you are having a typical absence seizure, you will be unconscious for a few seconds. You will suddenly stop doing whatever you were doing before it started, but will not fall. You might appear to be daydreaming or ‘switching off’ or people around you might not notice your absence. Your eyelids might flutter and you might have slight jerking movements of your body or limbs. In longer absences, you might have some brief, repeated actions. You won’t know what is happening around you, and can’t be brought out of it.
Some people have hundreds of absences a day. They often have them in clusters of several, one after another, and they are often worse when they are waking up or drifting off to sleep. Typical absence seizures usually start in childhood or early adulthood.
These absences are similar to, but not the same as, typical absences. They last longer, and they start and end more slowly. You might be able to move around, but your muscles might go limp or ‘floppy’, making you clumsy. You may be able to respond to someone during an atypical absence seizure.
People who have atypical absences usually have learning disabilities or other conditions that affect the brain. Atypical absences can happen at any age.
How long do absence seizures last?
A single typical absence seizure usually lasts less than 10 seconds. But some people have clusters of absences one after another.
Atypical absence seizures last longer, up to 30 seconds.
What happens after an absence seizure?
After an absence seizure, you’re normally able to go straight back to what you were doing beforehand. If you’ve had a cluster of several absence seizures you might feel confused.
How can someone help me during an absence seizure?
Ask them to take our short online course which shows them what to do when someone has a seizure.
See this information with references
If you would like to see this information with references, visit the Advice and Information references section of our website. If you are unable to access the internet, please contact our Epilepsy Action Helpline freephone on 0808 800 5050.
Epilepsy Action would like to thank Professor Helen Cross, The Prince of Wales’s Chair of Childhood Epilepsy and Honorary Consultant in Paediatric Neurology at UCL Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, for her contribution to this information.
Professor Cross has declared no conflict of interest.
This information has been produced under the terms of The Information Standard.
- Updated July 2017To be reviewed July 2020