When babies develop a fever high enough or abrupt enough to cause a seizure, frightened parents often rush them to the emergency room, where their workup frequently includes a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to rule out bacterial meningitis.
Now, in the largest study to date, researchers at Children's Hospital Boston find that this uncomfortable procedure is probably not necessary in well-appearing children who have had a simple febrile seizure. Findings are published in the January issue of Pediatrics.
Simple febrile seizures – a generalized seizure lasting no more than 15 minutes and not recurring within 24 hours – are common in infants and young children, affecting 2 to 5 percent of children 6 months to 5 years old. "This means we might see at least one case per day in the emergency room," says Amir Kimia, MD, of Children's Division of Emergency Medicine and the study's first author. "When it's a first event, it's pretty scary for parents – they usually call 911."
Current American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations, issued in 1996, call on physicians to consider doing a lumbar puncture in children 12 to 18 months old with a first simple febrile seizure and to "strongly" consider lumbar puncture for infants 6 to 12 months old. But when Amir and colleagues reviewed the medical charts of 704 babies seen at Children's emergency department for a first simple febrile seizure between October 1995 and October 2006, they found no cases of bacterial meningitis in either age group.
Of the 704 babies, 271 (38 percent) underwent lumbar puncture. Of these, 10 babies (3.8 percent) were found to have an elevated white-blood-cell count in their cerebrospinal fluid, indicating a possible viral infection, but no pathogen was identified in cerebrospinal fluid cultures, and no patient was diagnosed as having bacterial meningitis.
This is the first large-scale study to focus specifically on 6- to 18-month-olds, who are considered to be at highest risk for bacterial meningitis. The findings are consistent with those of previous small-scale studies in this young age group and studies that included children up to age 6.
Lumbar puncture requires local anesthesia and often sedation. "It is a safe procedure with an extremely low rate of complications," says Kimia. "But it's a needle and it's not fun. We're trying not to do it unless it's absolutely necessary."