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Hydrocephalus

What is hydrocephalus?

Hydrocephalus is a condition in which too much fluid builds up in the head and puts pressure on the brain. In Latin, hydro means "water" and "cephalus" means head. People commonly refer to hydrocephalus as "water on the brain." The water is actually cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the clear fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

What is the cause?

We all produce CSF that flows around the brain and spinal cord. Hydrocephalus can occur when a block in the flow of this fluid inside the brain develops. This causes swelling of the spaces in the brain called the ventricles. The swelling puts harmful pressure on the tissues of the brain. Another cause of hydrocephalus is when there is a problem absorbing the CSF fluid on the outside of the brain.

Hydrocephalus occurs most often in newborns. In children and adults, hydrocephalus can happen after a head injury or when there is a tumor, infection, or bleeding anywhere in the brain. Adults may develop hydrocephalus when the brain is damaged by stroke or when the body has trouble absorbing the fluid. Most of the time the cause is unknown.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms in infants include:

  • A bulging soft spot on the top of the head (the anterior fontanel)
  • An unusually large head
  • Vomiting, sleepiness, and irritability
  • Seizures
  • Eyes that tend to look downward
  • Developmental delays

The symptoms of hydrocephalus in older children and adults include:

  • Problems with balance, coordination, or walking
  • Headache followed by vomiting and nausea
  • Eyes that tend to look downward
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Sleepiness, tiredness, irritability, or changes in personality.

How is it diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider will examine and measure your child and ask about the symptoms. Your provider will suspect hydrocephalus if your child's head circumference is growing too fast. If the head is too large for your child's age, scans such as an ultrasound, CT scan or an MRI, may be done. Sometimes hydrocephalus can be diagnosed before a child is born.

What is the treatment?

Surgery is commonly done to treat hydrocephalus. The surgeon usually places a tube called a shunt, from the brain to the abdomen or blood vessels near the heart. This allows the extra fluid to drain. Repeat surgery may be needed if the shunt gets blocked or infected, or to lengthen the shunt tube as the child grows.

How long will the effects last?

Hydrocephalus may be mild or severe. In mild cases, there may be normal intelligence and life span. In severe cases, the pressure on the brain may destroy brain tissue and result in brain damage and developmental disabilities.

Where can I get more information?

Families who have a loved one with hydrocephalus may need counseling or support. Services available include public health agencies, social services and other agencies. For more information, contact

Hydrocephalus Association
Phone: 1-888-598-3789
Web site: http://www.hydroassoc.org

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-01-27
Last reviewed: 2011-05-09
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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