When Your Child Has a Brain Abscess

A brain abscess is an infection in the brain caused by bacteria or fungus. In response to the infection, the body forms a sac around the affected area. A brain abscess can press on the brain, damage tissue, or block blood vessels in the brain. It is a serious and life-threatening condition that must be treated right away. With treatment, many children can recover with no complications. Outline of child's head turned to side showing head and brain. Abscess is in front part of brain.

What Are the Causes of a Brain Abscess?

Your child may have developed a brain abscess in one of the following ways:

  • Bacteria or fungus may have traveled through the bloodstream to the brain from another area of infection in the body.

  • Bacteria or fungus may have entered the brain directly through a wound such as a head injury.

What Are the Symptoms of a Brain Abscess?

Symptoms for a brain abscess can come on slowly or suddenly. They can include:

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Seizures or convulsions

  • Trouble with vision, speech, balance, or movement

How Is a Brain Abscess Diagnosed?

Your child will likely see a pediatric neurologist for diagnosis and treatment. This is a doctor who specializes in neurologic problems. The doctor examines your child. He or she also asks about your child’s health history and symptoms. The following may then be done:

  • Neurologic exam to check how well your child’s nervous system is working. During the exam, the doctor checks your child’s muscle strength, balance, coordination, and reflexes. He or she may also check skills such as thinking, memory, vision, hearing, and talking.

  • MRI or CT scan to provide detailed pictures of the brain. These help the doctor determine the size and location of the brain abscess. Fluid called contrast dye may be used to make the brain abscess easier to see. Medication can be given to help your child stay calm and lie still during the tests.

  • Spinal tap (also called a lumbar puncture) to check the health of the fluid around the brain and spinal cord. This fluid is called cerebrospinal fluid. During the test, the low back is numbed. Then a needle is inserted into the spinal canal and a sample of the fluid is taken. It is taken to a lab and checked for signs of bacteria or fungus.

How Is a Brain Abscess Treated?

  • Hospital care is needed right away for a brain abscess. Your child is carefully monitored until symptoms improve.

  • Treatment consists of medications delivered through an IV (intravenous) line. Medications can include antibiotics or antifungal medications.

  • Your child’s doctor will speak with you about other forms of treatment, such as surgery, if they are needed.

  • The overall treatment time will vary for each child. In some cases, treatment can even be completed at home.

What Are the Long-Term Concerns?

After treatment, many children recover completely. Some children will have ongoing neurologic problems such as trouble with speech or movement. Regular follow-up with the doctor may be recommended depending on your child’s condition. Supportive care, such as speech, physical, or occupational therapy, may be prescribed to help your child recover.