Health Encyclopedia

Stroke in Children

A stroke is a brain injury caused by the interruption of blood flow to part of the brain. Stroke can be caused by a blocked blood vessel (ischemic stroke) or by bleeding in the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). The brain needs a constant supply of oxygen, which is carried by the blood. When blood flow stops, brain cells start to die.

Stroke is much more common in adults than children. Because a stroke isn't expected in a child, the diagnosis may be delayed. A child, however, often recovers more easily than an adult because a child's brain is still developing.

Risk factors for stroke in children

Some conditions put children at an increased risk for stroke.

  • Heart problem (most common)

  • Sickle cell disease (a blood disorder)

  • Infection

  • Injury

  • Dehydration

  • Migraine headache

  • Some metabolic disorders

  • Blood clotting problems

  • Birth defects

In many children, no cause can be found.

Symptoms of stroke in children

Symptoms of stroke in children depend on the age of the child and the cause of the stroke. In newborns, the most common symptom is a seizure. In older children, stroke symptoms are more like the symptoms seen in adults and may include:

  • Severe headache, possibly with vomiting

  • Weakness or numbness on one side of the body

  • Dizziness

  • Trouble walking

  • Trouble seeing

  • Trouble speaking

  • Sleepiness

If your child has symptoms of stroke, call 911 or your local emergency number.

Diagnosis of stroke in children

Diagnosis begins with asking questions about your child's current symptoms and medical history. The health care provider will ask about injuries, infection, problems with growth and development, and about family history of bleeding problems. The health care provider will examine your child. He or she will look for any signs of weakness, numbness, or other signs of stroke. Several tests may be done to help make the diagnosis:

  • Brain imaging studies. These may include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), or computed tomography (CT) scans.

  • Blood tests. Blood is tested for signs of infection and blood clotting abnormalities.

  • Heart and blood vessel studies. Heart rhythm is checked with an electrocardiogram (ECG). Special imaging of the heart and blood vessels may also be done.

  • Lumbar puncture. Fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid) may be checked for blood or signs of infection.

Treatment of stroke in children

It is important to call 911 at the first sign of stroke. Treatment works best if it is started as soon as possible after a stroke occurs. Treatment depends on the cause of the stroke. Treatment may include:

Intravenous (IV) fluids to avoid or reverse dehydration

  • Oxygen

  • Blood transfusions

  • Medications to treat blood clots and to thin blood

Prevention of stroke in children

In children, the first symptom of a stroke is usually the first warning, so there may be no way to prevent the first stroke. Some children may have a second stroke. Your child's health care provider will treat the condition that may have lead to the stroke. Medications, procedures, and surgery may be part of the treatment.

Managing stroke in children

Most children recover following stroke. After the initial treatment, your child will receive physical, occupational, and rehabilitation therapy.

The most common problem is loss of movement on one side of the body. Your child may also need help with learning, speech, vision, and behavior problems. 

Medical Reviewers:

  • Bass, Pat F. III, MD, MPH
  • Holloway, Beth, RN, M.Ed.
  • MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician