Symptoms of Hydrocephalus

  • Abnormal enlargement of the head (in infants)
  • Projectile vomiting (in infants)
  • Convulsions or seizures (in infants)
  • Severe headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Various aspects of mental confusion and deterioration, including irritability, loss of memory, anxiety, paranoia, apathy, impaired judgment, or speech disturbances
  • Unsteadiness when walking
  • Urinary incontinence

What Is Hydrocephalus?

Hydrocephalus is an uncommon disorder involving the overaccumulation of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the fluid-filled spaces, or ventricles, within the brain. CSF is secreted into the ventricles, circulates around the brain tissue, and is then absorbed by tiny finger-like projections from the membranes surrounding the brain. If the flow of CSF is blocked, or if a defect interferes with fluid reabsorption, pressure increases upon the brain.

Newborns and the elderly are most susceptible to this disorder. In infants, increased CSF pressure forces the soft bones of the head apart, producing an abnormally large head. The onset of hydrocephalus may be sudden or gradual; in either case it can cause permanent brain damage in all age groups, so prompt treatment is essential.

What Causes Hydrocephalus?

  • In infants, causes include congenital malformations, injury during birth, bacterial meningitis, and viral infections.
  • In both children and adults, causes include brain hemorrhage and brain tumor.

Prevention of Hydrocephalus

There is no known way to prevent hydrocephalus.

Diagnosis of Hydrocephalus

  • The circumference of a newborn’s head is measured at birth. Enlargement suggests hydrocephalus.
  • X-rays, CT (computed tomography) scans, and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the skull
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)

How to Treat Hydrocephalus

Surgical insertion of a drainage tube, or shunt, is necessary to circumvent blockage or to drain excess CSF in both children and adults. The shunt allows excess CSF to flow into a vein in the neck, and thus into the bloodstream, or the abdominal cavity, where it is reabsorbed. The shunt is usually permanent. If placed in an infant, the shunt must be periodically replaced as the child grows.

When to Call a Doctor

  • Symptoms of hydrocephalus warrant immediate medical attention to prevent or minimize potential brain damage.
  • Emergency—Call a doctor immediately if a child with a shunt for hydrocephalus exhibits vomiting, irritability, or convulsions. These may be signs of shunt malfunction.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 11 Aug 2010

Last Modified: 22 Jan 2015