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What is Cerebral Edema?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Cerebral edema is a condition characterized by the presence of a large amount of fluid in the brain. If not treated, it can be fatal, or cause severe brain damage, and the quicker a patient is treated, the better his or her chances of recovery will be. Because this condition can be extremely serious, evaluations to check for signs of it are common when patients are brought in for head trauma, because healthcare professionals want to catch it as early as possible.

When a patient has cerebral edema, there is way more fluid in the skull than there should be. This causes the brain to swell, which has a number of consequences. The swelling can compromise the brain's blood flow, much like water will not flow through a hose that is stepped on. Decreased flow of blood to the brain can cause brain damage or death. The increased pressure may also force the brain to move around in the skull, which it is not designed to do.

Treatment involves relieving the pressure in the skull, getting rid of the fluid, and getting to the root cause of the problem to see if it can be prevented from happening again. The use of corticosteroids can help bring the swelling down, while diuretics will help the body express the excess water, which will further reduce the swelling. Sometimes, surgical means are used to relieve pressure on the brain as well, although this can be dangerous.

People who have suffered head injuries are at the most risk of developing cerebral edema, especially if the injuries were severe. The brain does not react well to being jostled around or smashed abruptly into things, and it may respond by starting to retain water. This condition can also develop at high altitude, causing what is known as High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), a condition that can rapidly turn fatal if a climber does not descend promptly.

Someone who is developing this problem may demonstrate an altered state of consciousness, confusion, dizziness, nausea, lack of coordination, or numbness. If someone receives a head injury and any of these symptoms appear, medical attention should be sought immediately. It's always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to brain injuries; medical professionals would far rather look at a healthy patient to alleviate fears than see a patient when it is too late.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon248545 — On Feb 17, 2012

It says that the best guess of Bruce Lee's death is cerebral edema. Is this true?

By anon180962 — On May 27, 2011

what is the pathophysiology of edema?

By anon115757 — On Oct 04, 2010

I still don't know what is edema, meaning how does it develop and what it looks like in the brain. good article though.

By dega2010 — On Jul 26, 2010

@medicchristy: I didn’t realize that mumps could cause cerebral edema! That was great information. I wanted to add a very important cause of cerebral edema: shaken baby syndrome.

Many people don’t even notice when these babies have developed cerebral edema from shaken baby syndrome. Many times it is misdiagnosed because the symptoms are so similar to other diseases.

The mortality rate is around 25% for these babies. The ones who survive usually have severe problems because of the effects of the cerebral edema.

By medicchristy — On Jul 26, 2010

Great article! That was very useful information. And, as the article stated, cerebral edema can be hard to detect. Symptoms may start very slowly and the patient might not even understand what is happening.

There are many cerebral edema causes. Some of these causes we probably haven’t even thought about. Cerebral edema can be brought on by mumps, malaria, Reyes Syndrome, hypertension, and eclampsia.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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