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What are Convulsions?

By Shannon Kietzman
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Convulsions, also sometimes called seizures, are a medical condition in which a person’s body appears to shake in an uncontrollable manner. When a person experiences them, his or her muscles quickly contract and relax repeatedly. This is what causes the appearance of rapid shaking movements.

Although convulsions can be quite traumatic to witness, they are usually harmless to the person experiencing them. In most cases, they last anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes, though much longer fits may also occur. If they last for a long period of time, generally defined as 15 minutes or more, they may be considered a medical emergency. The same is true if a person has several episodes in a row and does not appear to awaken between these episodes.

When a person experiences convulsions, he or she may suddenly fall or experience uncontrollable muscle spasms. He or she may also begin to drool or froth from the mouth, start snorting and grunting, and stop breathing for a period of time. Other symptoms include briefly blacking out, feelings of confusion, unusual eye movement, loss of bowel or bladder control, and clenching of the teeth. The person may also act in an unusual manner, such as laughing for no reason, suddenly becoming angry, or picking at his or her clothes.

There are several potential causes of convulsions. Those who repeatedly experience them usually have epilepsy, a brain dysfunction that can often be controlled with proper medication. Children under five years of age may also experience seizures as the result of a fever that quickly rises in temperature. Children who have convulsions due to fever typically do not experience long term brain difficulties or any other side effects from them.

Alcohol abuse or illegal drugs use can also lead to seizures, as can injury or illness of the brain. Choking, general head injury, electric shock, heart disease, stroke, and meningitis are all other possible causes of convulsions. Pregnant women experiencing toxemia and poisoning can also experience them.

When a person experiences convulsions, those around him or her should clear the area in order to prevent injury. It is best for the person to lie in a safe area and to have his or her head cushioned. Any tight clothing, particularly clothing around the person’s neck, should be loosened. If the person vomits, he or she should be moved onto one side in order to prevent inhaling the vomit into the lungs. The seizures should cease on their own, but if they do not stop after five to ten minutes, a witness should call 911.

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Discussion Comments
By anon936152 — On Feb 27, 2014

I was a bit curious about this because I may have had a convulsion after putting pressure in my head to make it red, which I've now realized wasn't the smartest thing. I was in class and unfortunately, no one really did anything other than continue their classwork.

Also, I felt a bit light headed after that red face thing, which resulted in a faint of seconds only. I then woke up shaking without having the control to stop, and I just waited until I was okay.

By anon926032 — On Jan 15, 2014

My teenage daughter had convulsions from a 40.5 degree fever once. It was horrible. She just started shaking (at first we thought she was just shivering) and jerking violently. We had no idea what to do. My son rang and ambulance and I tried to cool her fever down with some damp cloths. The convulsions went on for about 15 minutes. At the end of it, her face turned blue and her eyes rolled back into her head and she just went dead still. The ambulance came just minutes later, and I did have to give her mouth-to-mouth as she had stopped breathing. It was a awful experience and would not wish it upon anybody. It still gives me nightmares.

By browncoat — On Oct 12, 2012

@indigomoth - Well, 1913 wasn't exactly the dark ages. They did know enough about science by then to know what they didn't know. It is more likely (unfortunately) that because it was "only" a two year old girl the doctor didn't bother to really follow up what was wrong with her.

These days (I'd like to think) a two year old dying would be a big deal and a lot of effort would go into diagnosing why. But they didn't even have penicillin at that point, and unfortunately, young children died all the time, so likely the parents described what happened to the doctor and he just noted it down as "convulsions".

By indigomoth — On Oct 11, 2012

@ElleJae - Unfortunately, it's difficult to tell unless you've got a more detailed description of the "convulsions" and other symptoms. It might have been epilepsy and she died from a grand mal seizure. It might have been food poisoning and the poor thing had a seizure when she reached a high fever. It might have been a bump on the head or some other kind of disease.

Back then, they just picked the biggest symptom and labeled that the disease. On the plus side for you it means unless you've found a string of relatives dying from convulsions it's probably not a genetic condition.

But it is really sad for the little girl. Medicine back then was horrible.

By anon274340 — On Jun 11, 2012

Never take pain, muscle relaxants or any other narcotics irresponsibly. They will ruin your life and that of everyone around you.

By anon163405 — On Mar 27, 2011

It is time these drugs were not handed out like smarties. why aren't the patients counseled?

I am hearing more and more each day of men, particularly, put on these medications and within in months they have committed suicide. They are not the quick fix; you are messing with people's brains.

I am witnessing at the moment the dreadful demise of my son on these tablets and am unable to help, as his wife, the instigator of his problem is his next of kin, and his health, they say, is not my concern.

By anon70602 — On Mar 15, 2010

what is the difference between seizures, fits and convulsions?

By anon30641 — On Apr 22, 2009

What is the differential diagnosis of convulsions?

By ElleJae — On Apr 28, 2008

In my genealogy research I discovered a great aunt died from "convulsions" at age 2. Her twin and other siblings all lived well into adulthood. This was in 1913 so I'm wondering what her actual illness might have been if she'd been diagnosed today. Thank you.

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