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Hydrocephalus occurs when excess fluid builds up in your brain, most often because of an obstruction preventing proper fluid drainage. The excess fluid can compress surrounding, fragile brain tissue, causing brain damage. Left untreated, hydrocephalus can be fatal. Once known as "water on the brain," hydrocephalus is sometimes present at birth, although it may develop later. About 1 out of 500 children is born with the disorder. The outlook if you have hydrocephalus depends on how quickly the condition is diagnosed and whether any underlying disorders are present.
Complications of Hydrocephalus
The severity of hydrocephalus depends on the age at which the condition develops and the course it follows. If the condition is well advanced at birth, major brain damage and physical disabilities are likely. In less severe cases, with proper treatment, it's possible to have a nearly normal life span and intelligence.
Causes of Hydrocephalus
Signs & Symptoms of Hydrocephalus
The signs and symptoms of hydrocephalus vary by age group and disease progression.
In infants, common signs and symptoms of hydrocephalus include:
In older children and adults, common signs and symptoms of hydrocephalus include:
Hydrocephalus produces different combinations of these signs and symptoms, depending on its cause, which also varies by age. For example, a condition known as normal pressure hydrocephalus, which mainly affects older people, typically starts with difficulty walking. Urinary incontinence often develops, along with a type of dementia marked by slowness of thinking and information processing.
Diagnosis of Hydrocephalus
In babies and young children, hydrocephalus is likely to be diagnosed:
If your baby's head is visibly enlarged or its growth over time is more rapid than that of other infants, your doctor may recommend an ultrasound of the head. If the results of the ultrasound are abnormal, your infant will need further evaluation.
In older children and adults, a doctor may diagnose hydrocephalus after the child or adult develops signs or symptoms of the condition. To help make the diagnosis, your doctor is likely to perform:
If detailed pictures of the brain from imaging tests reveal hydrocephalus or other abnormalities, referral to a brain surgeon for further evaluation and treatment is likely.
Treatments of Hydrocephalus
Hydrocephalus is usually treated with surgery. Options include:
People who have hydrocephalus usually need a shunt system for the rest of their lives, so additional surgeries may be needed to insert longer tubing to match a child's growth. Revisions to the shunt also may be needed if the tubing becomes blocked or infected.
Caring for the whole child
If your child has hydrocephalus, his or her doctor may recommend working with specialists who can help your child thrive in daily life and at school, such as:
These specialists will likely evaluate your child's developmental progress on a regular basis in order to detect any delays in social, intellectual, emotional or physical development. Effective interventions are available to help your child reach his or her full potential.
Prevention of Hydrocephalus
To reduce the risk of hydrocephalus:
To prevent head injury:
Should you be vaccinated against meningitis?
Ask your doctor if you or your child should receive a vaccine against meningitis, once a common cause of hydrocephalus. A meningitis vaccine is now recommended for people ages 2 and older who are at increased risk of this disease due to:
When to seek Medical Advice
Infants and toddlers require emergency medical care for these signs and symptoms:
The following signs and symptoms don't constitute an emergency, but they do warrant a call to your child's doctor:
Older adults need a complete physical and neurological exam if experiencing:
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