Hydrocephalus is the buildup of fluid in the cavities (ventricles) deep within the brain. The excess fluid increases the size of the ventricles and puts pressure on the brain.

Cerebrospinal fluid normally flows through the ventricles and bathes the brain and spinal column. But the pressure of too much cerebrospinal fluid associated with hydrocephalus can damage brain tissues and cause a large spectrum of impairments in brain function.

Although hydrocephalus can occur at any age, it's more common among infants and older adults.

Surgical treatment for hydrocephalus can restore and maintain normal cerebrospinal fluid levels in the brain. A variety of interventions are often required to manage symptoms or functional impairments resulting from hydrocephalus.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

The signs and symptoms of hydrocephalus vary generally by age of onset.


Common signs and symptoms of hydrocephalus in infants include:

Changes in the head

  • An unusually large head
  • A rapid increase in the size of the head
  • A bulging or tense soft spot (fontanel) on the top of the head

Physical symptoms

  • Vomiting
  • Sleepiness
  • Irritability
  • Poor feeding
  • Seizures
  • Eyes fixed downward (sunsetting of the eyes)
  • Deficits in muscle tone and strength, responsiveness to touch, and expected growth

Toddlers and older children

Among toddlers and older children, signs and symptoms may include:

Physical symptoms

  • Headache
  • Blurred or double vision

Physical signs

  • Abnormal enlargement of a toddler's head
  • Sleepiness
  • Difficulty remaining awake or waking up
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Unstable balance
  • Poor coordination
  • Poor appetite
  • Seizures

Behavioral and cognitive changes

  • Irritability
  • Change in personality
  • Problems with attention
  • Decline in school performance
  • Delays or problems with previously acquired skills, such as walking or talking

Young and middle-aged adults

Common signs and symptoms in this age group include:

  • Headache
  • Difficulty in remaining awake or waking up
  • Loss of coordination or balance
  • Loss of bladder control or a frequent urge to urinate
  • Impaired vision
  • Decline in memory, concentration and other thinking skills that may affect job performance

Older adults

Among adults 60 years of age and older, the more common signs and symptoms of hydrocephalus are:

  • Loss of bladder control or a frequent urge to urinate
  • Memory loss
  • Progressive loss of other thinking or reasoning skills
  • Difficulty walking, often described as a shuffling gait or the feeling of the feet being stuck
  • Poor coordination or balance
  • Slower than normal movements in general

When to see a doctor

Seek emergency medical care for infants and toddlers experiencing these signs and symptoms:

  • A high-pitched cry
  • Problems with sucking or feeding
  • Unexplained, recurrent vomiting
  • An unwillingness to bend or move the neck or head
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Seizures

Seek prompt medical attention for other signs or symptoms in any age group.

Because more than one condition can result in the problems associated with hydrocephalus, it's important to get a timely diagnosis and appropriate care.

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