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Hydrocephalus fluid build-up

Hydrocephalus fluid build-up
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Hydrocephalus

Hydrocephalus is a condition caused by fluid build-up in the brain. The brain makes a fluid called cerebrospinal fluid. This fluid has important functions but if there is too much fluid, pressure can damage the brain.

What is hydrocephalus?

The cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF, cushions the brain, provides nutrients and removes toxins.

Normally, CSF is made in the brain and removed from around the brain in a cycle. But CSF can build up if:

  • the brain makes too much
  • there is a blockage and it cannot drain properly
  • it is not being absorbed into the bloodstream.

Causes of hydrocephalus

If a child is born with hydrocephalus, it is called congenital hydrocephalus. This is usually caused by a problem in the CSF process when the baby’s brain is developing.

People can also get hydrocephalus as a child or as an adult after a head injury, after bleeding in the brain, after a brain tumour or after meningitis, which is an infection around the brain.

Another cause of hydrocephalus is spina bifida, a birth defect that affects the spine. Hydrocephalus can develop in children with spina bifida before or after they are born.

Symptoms of hydrocephalus

The most common symptoms of hydrocephalus are headache, nausea, vomiting and fits.

For babies, hydrocephalus can also cause:

  • increased head size
  • bulging or firm fontanelle, which is the soft spot on a baby’s head
  • poor feeding
  • drowsiness or sleepiness.

For older children or adults, hydrocephalus can also cause:

  • blurred or double vision
  • problems concentrating
  • loss of coordination
  • confusion.

Diagnosis of hydrocephalus

If someone has symptoms of hydrocephalus, tests can be done to check for extra fluid in the brain. They include:

  • ultrasound
  • computerised tomography scan, or CT
  • magnetic resonance imaging scan, or MRI.

Treatment of hydrocephalus

While hydrocephalus can’t be cured, it can be controlled. Treatment aims to reduce pressure on the brain. The usual approach is surgery to place a fine tube that helps drain the fluid.

Last reviewed: May 2016

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