Hydrocephalus [hahy-druh-sef-uh-luh s], sometimes called "water on the brain", can cause babies' and young children's heads to swell to make room for excess cerebrospinal fluid. This excess fluid puts pressure on the brain which can damage it, and if left untreated can be fatal.
Congenital hydrocephalus means a baby is born with the condition. This is often due to problems like spina bifida.
Acquired hydrocephalus happens after birth and can affect people of any age. It is usually caused by bleeding in the brain which can happen after a traumatic head injury. Children can also develop hydrocephalus due to a tumour or infection in the brain.
Older children will not have the recognisable symptom of an enlarged head. For them the added pressure on the brain can cause severe headaches. Other symptoms can include: nausea, vomiting, sleepiness, problems with balance and motor skills, double vision and squinting. Children may also experience changes in personality, loss of developmental abilities (like speaking or walking) and memory loss.
The standard treatment for hydrocephalus is a shunt where a catheter (a thin, flexible tube) is placed in the brain to drain extra fluid down to the abdominal cavity, heart, or a space around the lungs, where the fluid is absorbed into the bloodstream. While a shunt is an effective treatment for hydrocephalus it can also be a burden for children and their families. Shunts can last for many years but when they stop working they must be fixed with another operation. As a result some children will need many operations. For older children with hydrocephalus caused by a blockage a minimally invasive procedure with an endoscope can sometimes cure it. Many children with hydrocephalus go on to lead normal lives. Those with more complex medical problems like spina bifida may have more health problems.