Funny turns are surprisingly common in children, and they are funny-strange, not funny-amusing. A funny turn describes something that happens quite suddenly, making your child behave, move or act in an odd way. Your child may even lose consciousness. A funny turn may be described as a seizure, fit, convulsion, collapse, spell, or faint. It can be a very frightening experience.
Doctors can find it difficult to narrow down what causes a funny turn in a child. Parents and carers can find it hard to pinpoint and explain exactly what they saw happening when their child experiences a funny turn.
Often, by the time your child is seen by a doctor, there may be nothing to see. These are the types of questions your doctor will be interested in:
Before the funny turn: What was your child doing at the time? Was your child well? Did your child have a fever? Was the room hot? Had she been eating and drinking normally? Were there any strong emotions or stresses going on at the time? Was your child upset or angry? Was she breathing hard? Was she tired? Did your child mention anything peculiar beforehand, such as feeling sick, or feeling her eyesight go strange?
During the funny turn: Did your child lose consciousness? Did your child change colour (go blue or go pale)? Was your child sweaty? Did she go floppy or stiff? Did her arms, legs or another part of the body jerk, twitch or move about? Any tongue biting? Did she wet herself?
After the funny turn: How long did the funny turn last? Did the child recover quickly? Was your child confused, sleepy or very tired afterwards? Has this happened before?
Deciding what caused the funny turn
Explaining what caused a funny turn can be challenging. It can take more than a few appointments with your child’s paediatrician to arrive at a conclusion. Sometimes it can take months to reach a diagnosis. Sometimes, particularly when no further similar events happen, no diagnosis is ever made.
What sorts of conditions can make children have funny turns?
The list of potential causes is long. Here are some of the possibilities:
- Breath-holding episodes: An example would be healthy toddlers who have just been told off. A child may have been crying, or angry or upset, and then suddenly he doesn’t take a breath in, and his face turns blue. He stops breathing and loses consciousness. This is followed by the breath coming back and the child returning to normal. Breath-holding is not harmful and typically children grow out of it. Not all children turn blue when holding their breath. Some can turn very pale and lose consciousness when they get a sudden shock or a sudden fright.
- A faint (also called syncope): This is more common in older children and teens and may be triggered by numerous factors, such as too much heat, dehydration, not eating, strong emotions, etc. The child may remember feeling dizzy, hot, or light headed before the faint. Most simple faints are not serious and a specific cause may never be found. However, faints may be related to heart conditions such as abnormal heart rhythms, or diseases relating to heart valves or heart muscle.
- Hyperventilation: This can be related to emotions, such as feeling very anxious and stressed and breathing too fast (which makes the levels of carbon dioxide in your child’s body drop and they can end up fainting). Although breathing into a paper bag does not necessarily stop the attack, it does help prevent fainting (by bringing carbon dioxide levels back up again).
- Febrile convulsion (a fit due to fever): This is a type of fit that is more common in babies and small children. The child is usually known to have a fever beforehand. The child may have twitching movements, be floppy or stiff, and not be aware of what is happening around them. This type of fit can happen more than once. It does not cause damage to the brain. Doctors will look for signs of infection in any child thought to have had a febrile fit. Most commonly, febrile fits are caused by viral infections, but more serious infections (such as bacterial meningitis) need to be ruled out.
- Other causes of funny turns: Depending on what happened, your child may turn out to have night terrors, migraines, or sleep-related movement conditions. In general, most funny turns are not related to epilepsy.
What about investigations?
Most children who have a funny turn do not need any investigations. The choice of investigation (if any) will depend heavily on the description of what happened.
Depending on circumstances, they may need blood tests looking for anaemia or checking blood sugar levels, for example.
In some cases, where your doctor needs to determine whether there is a lesion on the brain, your child may need an MRI scan.
An EEG (an electroencephalogram), which records patterns of brain activity by placing special sensors on the scalp, is not a routine investigation. It is only done if a diagnosis of epilepsy is a strong possibility.
Given that a funny turn can be related to the heart, an ECG (an electrocardiogram; also called an EKG), where a tracing of heart electrical activity is recorded by sticking special sensors onto the skin on the chest, is an important investigation.
Possibly one of the most useful tools in working out the cause of a funny turn is video footage. Any part of the episode (either the original funny turn or a subsequent one) captured on your smartphone can be extremely helpful in coming up with a plausible cause or reason.
During the funny turn
Any child who passes out during a funny turn should be allowed to remain safely lying down on the ground until the episode is over.
A child whose body is jerking or shaking needs to be protected from being injured. A fitting child should not be restrained. Most fits last less than a few minutes. As a rule, you should urgently get help if a child’s fit lasts longer than five minutes. Sleepiness afterwards is very common. Let your child sleep immediately afterwards if they need to – you can keep an eye on their breathing while they sleep. Do not hesitate to seek help even if your child’s funny turn stops quickly. All first-time funny turns need to be fully clinically assessed.
What about epilepsy?
Epilepsy affects the brain. A burst of electrical activity temporarily stops the brain working normally. Epilepsy is not a single condition – there are lots of types of epilepsy, many of which have unknown causes. Epilepsy cannot be cured but can be controlled by medication. Starting and monitoring treatment is a complicated process, and treatment is not necessarily needed in everyone.
There is no special test that can diagnose epilepsy. Having an EEG can help support an epilepsy diagnosis, but in general, it is witness accounts and video footage that help make the diagnosis.
Children with certain types of epilepsy may grow out of them by the time they get older. The fit or seizure that occurs with epilepsy does not cause brain damage. It may take months to work out what is going on, and unfortunately a wrong diagnosis can sometimes occur.
After having a funny turn
Most funny turns are non-serious, do not get worse, and go away with time and no treatment. Many children will only ever have a funny turn once or twice. Those who have recurring ones will often outgrow them in childhood. A definitive diagnosis may not always be possible.
Funny turns can be unexplainable events that cause a huge amount of worry, especially if they appear dramatic or happen more than once. A thorough assessment is always necessary to rule out serious conditions, but often the only treatment is reassurance, and keeping an eye on whether things develop or change over time.
Note: Investigating and treating funny turns in adults is quite different from dealing with them in children.
By Dr. Jahura Hossain
Born and brought up in London, Jahura is a U.K.-qualified doctor. She has worked in hospitals, general practice, public health, prison medicine, and the pharmaceutical industry.
Illustrations by Albina Nogueira
Albina has been a primary school teacher since 1992, and a writer and illustrator since 2006. She currently lives in Switzerland, but her homeland is Portugal. She is also the author of Letters to Grandparents and Hairdresser. To find out more, like her on Facebook or see her books in Amazon.
© Copyright. Jahura Hossain. 2017. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without the express consent of the author.