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Overview of Brain Tumors in Children


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Sep 2020| Content last modified Sep 2020
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What are brain tumors in children?

A brain tumor is a growth in the brain. Brain tumors may be cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous. But even a noncancerous tumor can cause serious problems.

  • Brain tumors are among the most common cancers that affect children

  • The most common brain tumors in children are astrocytomas, medulloblastomas, and ependymomas—each starts in a different part of the brain

  • A child with a brain tumor may have headaches, throw up, and have vision or balance problems

  • Doctors treat brain tumors with a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy

What causes brain tumors in children?

Most of the time, doctors don't know why children develop a brain tumor. However, risk of a brain tumor is higher if children received a lot of radiation to their head or have certain inherited disorders, such as neurofibromatosis.

What are the symptoms of a brain tumor in children?

Symptoms of brain tumors occur because the growing tumor puts pressure on the brain.

Infants can't say what's wrong but you may notice they:

  • Seem irritable

  • Are sleepy or hard to wake up when they normally would be awake

  • Throw up

If the tumor starts early in infancy, your baby's head may appear too big.

Older children have similar symptoms, but they may also have:

  • Headaches

  • Vision problems, such as double vision (seeing 2 of the same object)

  • Trouble moving their eyes upward

  • Changes in mood, such as getting irritated more easily

  • Changes in alertness, such as being confused or drowsy

Other symptoms depend on where the tumor grows in the brain.

How can doctors tell if my child has a brain tumor?

Doctors suspect a brain tumor based on your child's symptoms. To tell if your child has a brain tumor, they'll do:

  • MRI or, less often, CT scan (sometimes doctors inject a contrast agent into your child's vein beforehand to make the images clearer)

If the MRI results show a brain tumor, doctors may:

  • Do surgery to remove a small piece of tissue or the entire tumor and look at it under a microscope (called a biopsy)

To see if any cancer has spread, doctors may also do a spinal tap (take a sample of fluid from the spinal cord).

How do doctors treat brain tumors in children?

A team of doctors who specialize in treating brain tumors in children will plan your child's treatment. To treat brain tumors, doctors will do a combination of:

If the tumor is blocking the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, doctors may put a small tube in your child's brain to drain fluid before surgery.

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