Seizure a First Sign of COVID in Kids?

Megan Brooks

September 10, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Unlike in adults, seizures, including status epilepticus (SE), may be the first and main manifestation of COVID-19 in children, new research suggests.

Seizures may occur even in children with no history of epilepsy and in the absence of fever or severe COVID-19 illness, necessitating a "high index" of suspicion for the virus to make an early diagnosis and allow for appropriate infection control measures, say the researchers.

"We hope to increase physicians' awareness of noninfluenza-like presentations of COVID in children. In areas with a high prevalence of COVID, we suggest that children with seizures be tested for COVID," Tal Gilboa, MD, director of the child neurology unit and codirector of epilepsy, Hadassah Medical Center, Jerusalem, Israel, told Medscape Medical News.

The study was published online August 27 in the journal Seizure.

Presenting Symptom

Among 175 children diagnosed with acute SARS-CoV-2 infection in the emergency department over 10 months in 2020, 11 (6%) presented with seizures. Studies in adults with COVID-19 have reported seizures in 0% to 2% of cases, the investigators note.

The 11 children with seizures (seven boys) ranged in age from 6 months to 17 years (median age, 11.5 years). All of them had seizures as the presenting sign of infection and none had severe COVID-19 requiring ventilatory or hemodynamic support. Six of the 11 children presented with fever.

Seven of the children had a prior history of neurological disorder: five had epilepsy, one had a single unprovoked seizure 3 years before admission, and one had an intellectual disability. Three of the children had uncontrolled seizures despite appropriate treatment with antiseizure medication.

Nine of the 11 children presented with generalized tonic-clonic seizures. One child with a prior history of uncontrolled epilepsy with multiple seizure types had a focal tonic seizure. The youngest patient, a 5-month-old infant, presented with bilateral asymmetrical tonic-clonic seizure.

Of note, say the investigators, five of the 11 children presented with convulsive SE; none had a history of prior SE, and one had no history of seizures.

Although young age, especially under 12 months, is a known risk factor for SE, four of the five patients with SE were between 5 and 17 years old. All five children with SE responded to treatment with antiseizure medications.

All 11 children made a full recovery while in hospital, although further follow-up is essential to determine long-term outcomes, the researchers report.

"Children with no prior history of epilepsy and those with well-controlled epilepsy who present with breakthrough seizures, regardless of their body temperature, should be considered as potentially infected by SARS-CoV-2," said Gilboa.

"It is possible, however unlikely, that a child, especially with prior epilepsy, may have an unprovoked seizure while being asymptomatically infected by SARS-CoV-2; in any case, infection control measures should be taken," Gilboa added.

Need for Replication

Weighing in on the study for Medscape Medical News, Carl E. Stafstrom, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and pediatrics, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, said it's important to note that "about half of the children had had epilepsy already, and for whatever reason, had a seizure, which required an ED visit, and then they found COVID."

"Nevertheless, this article is interesting and surprising in what they found because nobody else has found nearly as frequent a seizure presentation," said Stafstrom, director of the John M. Freeman Pediatric Epilepsy Center, Johns Hopkins Medicine.

"We would want to see some replication from other institutions and other populations," he added.

The study had no specific funding. Gilboa and Stafstrom have reported no relevant financial relationships.

Seizure. Published online August 27, 2021. Full text

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