Staring Spells: How to Distinguish Epileptic Seizures from Nonepileptic Staring

J Child Neurol. 2022 Aug;37(8-9):738-743. doi: 10.1177/08830738221103090. Epub 2022 Jun 23.


Objective: To determine the nature of staring spells and factors distinguishing epileptic from nonepileptic staring spells, we studied the clinical and demographic features of children with staring spells referred to a regional new-onset seizure clinic.

Study design: Our retrospective chart review encompassed 2818 consecutive patients evaluated in the new-onset seizure clinic between September 22, 2015, and March 19, 2018. We identified 121 patients with newly presenting staring spells.

Results: Sixty-two of 121 (51%) children were diagnosed with nonepileptic staring spells and 59 (49%) with epileptic seizures (24 with absence epilepsy, 35 with focal epilepsy). Patients with nonepileptic staring spells were younger (4.8 vs 7.1 years, P = .001) and more likely to have developmental delay (P = .005) than the seizure group. There was an 8.9-month delay on average from the onset of staring spells to the new-onset seizure clinic visit. The emergency department was a referral source for 80% (28/35) of focal seizures. In children with focal seizures, the staring spells typically lasted >1minute (29/35, 83%), whereas only 19 of 62 (31%) of children with nonepileptic staring spells had events lasting this long (P = .04). All children had a routine electroencephalography (EEG) on the day of new-onset seizure clinic visit. EEG was diagnostic in 100% (24/24) of absence seizures and 51% (18/35) of focal seizures.

Conclusions: In children presenting with staring spells, the differential diagnosis of epileptic staring spells vs nonepileptic staring spells can be made by history and routine EEG. Staring was as likely to be epileptic as nonepileptic spells. Younger children with developmental delay were more likely to have nonepileptic events. Our simple approach based on event duration, postictal symptoms, and EEG allowed identification of epileptic staring on first visit to new-onset seizure clinic but requires validation in future prospective studies including long-term video EEG monitoring and follow-up.

Keywords: absence; childhood absence epilepsy; focal seizure; nonepileptic staring; temporal lobe epilepsy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Electroencephalography
  • Epilepsy, Absence*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Seizures / diagnosis