What are brain tumor symptoms in kids?

Pediatric brain tumors are very rare, and their symptoms are common for many different conditions. When should you be concerned about a tumor?

Brain tumor symptoms in kids will depend on things such as the age of the child and the location of the tumor in the brain. The general symptoms in kids vary, but include:

  • Behavior changes
  • Blurry vision or crossed eyes
  • Drowsiness and fatigue that’s unexplained, even coma
  • Headache
  • Poor balance
  • Seizures
  • Unexplained vomiting or nausea

Many general brain tumor symptoms are due to an increase in pressure inside the brain (intracranial pressure). This pressure can be caused by the tumor growing, swelling in the brain or blocked flow of cerebrospinal fluid, the clear, watery fluid that helps protect the brain and spinal cord from injuries. Headaches are present in 70% of children with brain tumors; but so many children have headaches that a tumor is still a very rare cause for a headache.

Several symptoms should prompt a “red flag” for a brain tumor in a child and should prompt you to seek care if your child has any altered level of consciousness, clumsiness, or has any trouble moving or feeling a part of their body. Some headache types are more concerning for a tumor: a headache that is new or sudden, noticeably worsening, located in the back of the head, or worse when the child strains with activity or bathroom activities. Finally, headaches that are worse when lying down, in children without a parental history of headaches or in children less than 6 years old should be of more concern.

Seizures with or without a headache can be a sign of a brain tumor in some kids. Most seizures, however, are not caused by brain tumors. If your child experiences a seizure, your child’s provider may refer you to a neurologist to find out what caused the seizure.

Brain tumors are growths of abnormal cells that occur in the brain or the tissue or structures near it. Brain tumors can be invasive (destroying nearby tissue or travelling to other spots in the body) or noninvasive (moving nearby tissue aside to grow larger).

Baby and toddler brain tumor symptoms

In addition to general symptoms, babies and toddlers with brain tumors also may experience:

  • A head that grows extremely fast
  • A bulging, fuller soft spot (fontanel) on the head in babies
  • Changes in intellectual and/or physical abilities
  • Developmental delays
  • Irritability
  • Poor feeding or frequent vomiting

Brain tumor symptoms in school-age children and teens

In addition to general symptoms, children and teens with a brain tumor also may experience:

  • Growth and puberty problems, including irregular periods, losing body hair
  • Memory problems
  • Personality or behavior changes
  • Poor or declining school performance
  • Tingling, weakness or loss of sensation in any part of the body

Brain and spine tumor symptoms in kids based on location

  • Tingling, weakness or loss of sensation in any part of the body, often just on one side; can be caused by tumors in the part of the cerebrum that controls movement and sensation.
  • Language problems, including speech and trouble understanding words; can be caused by tumors in or near parts of the cerebrum that control language.
  • Personality, thinking and language skill issues may be caused due to the front part of the cerebrum being affected.
  • Vision problems can be caused by tumors around the pituitary gland, the back part of the cerebrum, the optic nerves or certain other cranial nerves.
  • Cerebellum (the smaller, lower back part of the brain that controls coordination)

Tumors in the cerebellum can cause:

  • Abnormal eye movement — issue with synchronizing eye movements
  • Difficulty with precision movement, often noticed as a decline in athletic performance without a clear reason
  • Speech rhythm changes
  • Trouble with coordination and walking
  • Trouble swallowing

Tumors in various cranial nerves can cause:

  • Balance problems
  • Hearing problems
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Weakness, numbness or drooping in the face

Spinal cord tumors can cause:

  • Numbness, weakness or loss of coordination in the arms and/or legs on one or both sides of the body
  • Bladder or bowel control issues
  • Depending on where a tumor is in the brain or spine, different symptoms can appear. These symptoms also can be signs of a problem in that part of the brain or spine but not a tumor specifically.

What to do if your child has brain tumor symptoms

Having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean your child has a brain tumor. Many of these symptoms can be caused by other conditions or issues. Talk with your child’s provider about any questions or concerns you may have about your child’s symptoms. Your child’s provider can refer you to a pediatric neurologist or neurosurgeon for more testing as needed.