Signs of a Brain Tumor in Children

Medically reviewed by: Michael G. DeCuypere, MD, PhD, Attending Physician in Lurie Children's Pediatric Neurosurgery Division

Brain tumors are collections of abnormal cell growth in the brain. They can be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign). Brain tumors are the most common solid tumors in children and can cause a variety of symptoms, depending on their location and size. 

Lurie Children’s Brain Tumor Center offers comprehensive, highly specialized and state-of-the-art care for children with brain and spinal cord tumors. Here are some of the warning signs of brain tumors in kids for parents and caregivers to look out for.

Headaches 

Many children with brain tumors experience headaches, often worse in the morning, before their diagnosis.  

Nausea and Vomiting 

Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of many childhood illnesses but they can also be signs of a brain tumor, especially if they are associated with headaches and persistent or projectile (forceful vomiting).  

Fatigue or Sleepiness 

A sleepy child isn't necessarily a cause for alarm. However, excessive sleepiness or difficulty waking up in the morning can be a sign of a brain tumor.  

Vision, Hearing or Speech Changes

Depending on the brain tumor's location, it can affect vision, hearing and speech. Signs of vision problems include blurry or double vision, seeing spots or loss of vision in one eye. Hearing problems may include hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Speech problems can include slurred speech, difficulty finding words or difficulty swallowing.  

Personality Changes

Personality changes can be a normal part of growing up. However, sudden or dramatic changes in personality, such as becoming more irritable, withdrawn, or aggressive, can be a sign of a brain tumor.  

Balance problems

Balance problems, such as clumsiness, stumbling or difficulty walking, can be a sign of a brain tumor.  

Seizures

Seizures are a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain that can cause changes in behavior, movement or sensation. Seizures can be a symptom of a brain tumor, but they can also be caused by other conditions, like epilepsy.

Increased Head Size

In infants, a brain tumor can cause an increase in head size or shape or bulging. It is important to note that other conditions can also cause the above symptoms. If you notice any severe changes in your child, contact your pediatrician for evaluation.

What causes brain tumors in children? 

The exact cause of most brain tumors in children is unknown. It may be related to mutations in a child’s DNA, which controls how cells grow and divide. In healthy cells, DNA controls these processes to keep cells functioning normally. But when there are mutations in a cell’s DNA, cells can grow and divide uncontrollably, which can lead to a tumor. 

There are a few factors that may increase a child's risk of developing a brain tumor: 

  • Inherited genetic conditions: Some genetic conditions, such as neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis, and von Hippel-Lindau disease, can increase a child's risk of developing a brain tumor.
  • Exposure to radiation: Very high doses of radiation, such as those used in some types of cancer treatment, can increase a child's risk of developing a brain tumor. However, the risk of being exposed to this type of radiation is very low. 

These are just some of the factors that may increase a child's risk of developing a brain tumor. Most brain tumors in children occur in children with no known risk factors. 

How are brain tumors diagnosed? 

Diagnosing a brain tumor typically involves a multi-step process: 

  • Medical History and Neurological Exam: Doctors will first discuss your child's medical history in detail, including any symptoms they've been experiencing. They will then perform a neurological exam to assess your child's vision, hearing, balance, coordination, reflexes, and muscle strength. 
  • Imaging Tests: Imaging tests are crucial for visualizing any abnormalities in the brain. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the preferred method as it provides detailed images of the brain and spinal cord. Sometimes a contrast agent might be injected into a vein to make the tumor show up more clearly on the scan. In some cases, a CT scan might be used as an alternative if an MRI isn't possible.
  • Tissue Diagnosis: A tissue sample is needed for a definitive diagnosis of a brain tumor. This can be performed during surgery to remove a tumor or as a separate biopsy procedure using a small probe. This sample is then examined under a microscope by a pathologist to determine the type and grade of the tumor. By combining the results of these tests, doctors can usually diagnose a brain tumor and determine its type and grade. This information is essential for planning the most appropriate course of treatment. 

Lurie Children's is ranked 10th in the nation in Pediatric Neurology & Neurosurgery by U.S. News & World Report.

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