Breath-Holding Spells - Topic Overview
What are breath-holding spells?
Breath-holding spells are brief periods when young children stop breathing for up to 1 minute. These spells often cause a child to pass out (lose consciousness). Breath-holding spells usually occur when a young child is angry, frustrated, in pain, or afraid. But the spell is a reflex. Children don't have breath-holding spells on purpose.
There are two types of breath-holding spells:
- A cyanotic spell is caused by a change in the child's usual breathing pattern, usually in response to feeling angry or frustrated. It's the most common type.
- A pallid spell is caused by a slowing of the child's heart rate, usually in response to pain.
Some children may have both types of spells at one time or another.
Breath-holding spells can occur in children 6 months through 6 years of age. They are most common from 1 to 3 years of age. Some children have them every day, and some have them only once in a while.
Breath-holding spells are usually not serious and don't cause lasting damage. With time, they go away on their own.
What causes breath-holding spells?
Breath-holding spells are usually caused by either a change in the child's breathing or a slowing of the heart rate. These reactions may be brought on by pain or by strong emotions.
In some children, breath-holding spells may be related to iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which the body doesn't produce a normal number of red blood cells.
What are the symptoms?
A breath-holding spell may cause:
- Fainting. It usually lasts for less than a minute.
- Twitching muscles, a stiff body, or a seizure.
- Changes in breathing and heartbeat.
- In a cyanotic spell: The child may breathe too fast or too hard. When the child breathes out, there may be a long pause before the child takes another breath.
- In a pallid spell: The heartbeat may slow down.
- Changes in skin color.
- In a cyanotic spell: The skin may turn red or blue-purple, especially around the lips.
- In a pallid spell: The skin may be pale and sweaty.
- In a cyanotic spell: There may be a short burst of intense crying.
- In a pallid spell: There may be a single cry or no cry at all.