Brain Swelling Explained

Medically Reviewed By Heidi Moawad, M.D.
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Brain swelling is the unusual accumulation of fluid in the area around the brain. It is typically due to an injury, an infection, or a medical condition. This article discusses what brain swelling is. It also talks about the causes, treatments, and complications of brain swelling.

What is brain swelling?

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Brain swelling, or cerebral edema, occurs when there is an accumulation of fluid in your brain. Generally, your body precisely manages the volume of fluid in your brain. This keeps it at a consistent volume so that your brain can function properly.

However, when the brain is injured or affected by an infection or medical condition, swelling can occur in and around your brain cells. This can have serious and potentially life threatening consequences.

The swelling can interfere with blood flow, and this may cause pressure on nearby areas. The resulting damage can lead to further swelling.

Brain swelling is a common issue that has many different possible causes.

There are two general types of brain swelling.

  • Cerebral edema: This is the swelling of the brain tissue. It is typically the result of brain damage.
  • Hydrocephalus: This is excess fluid in the ventricles around the brain. It typically occurs due to the blockage of the flow of cerebrospinal fluid.

No matter the underlying cause of the swelling, it is a serious issue that requires immediate medical attention.

Visit our hub to read more about the brain and nerves.

What causes brain swelling?

Brain swelling has many potential causes, ranging from injuries to underlying medical conditions.

Traumatic brain injury

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an injury that affects the functioning of your brain. TBIs are one of the major causes of death and disability in the United States. In 2019, there were 223,000 people hospitalized due to TBIs. Approximately 176 people in the U.S. die from a TBI each day.

TBIs are most commonly the result of:

  • getting hit in the head or bumping your head
  • sustaining a penetrating injury to the head, such as a gunshot wound

There are three types of TBIs:

Mild TBIs are the most common type of TBI. Most people fully recover from a mild TBI within 3 months to a year.

Symptoms of a mild TBI vary from person to person and include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • vision issues
  • headaches
  • difficulty paying attention or concentrating
  • difficulty thinking clearly
  • feeling more emotional than usual
  • anger or irritability
  • sleep issues
  • dizziness or a loss of balance
  • feeling foggy or groggy
  • feeling anxious or nervous
  • memory issues

Those who survive a moderate or severe TBI are more likely to have long-term health problems that can affect every part of their life. These types of TBIs can lead to a prolonged period of unconsciousness or amnesia immediately following the head injury.

Potential long-term effects of moderate or severe TBIs include:

  • physical symptoms, such as seizures
  • issues with thinking and learning
  • changes in hearing, vision, emotions, motor skills, or behaviors

Any TBI is a potentially serious and even life threatening issue. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of a TBI, contact your doctor right away.


Stroke is the fifth top cause of death and one of the leading causes of disability in the U.S.

A stroke occurs when one of the blood vessels that carry oxygen to your brain becomes blocked or bursts. When it comes to stroke, every minute counts. This is because brain cells begin to die within minutes of being deprived of oxygen.

There are two types of stroke.

  • Ischemic: This is when the vessels become blocked by a clot or something else.
  • Hemorrhagic: This is when one of the arteries in your brain leaks or ruptures.

Knowing the symptoms of stroke can help save your life or the life of someone else.

Symptoms of stroke

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the following symptoms, call the emergency services or seek immediate medical care:

  • sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arms, or legs, especially on one side
  • difficulty seeing that comes on suddenly
  • sudden confusion
  • difficulty speaking or understanding someone else
  • difficulty walking, dizziness, a loss of coordination, or a loss of balance that is sudden
  • a severe headache that has no known cause and comes on suddenly

Read about 10 things doctors want you to know about stroke.


A brain tumor is a growth of abnormal cells. The tumor can grow larger as the cells multiply. These are either benign or malignant. Either way, they are often serious and can be life threatening.

There are over 150 different types of brain tumors. They typically fall into two groups.

  • Primary: The tumor originates in the brain.
  • Metastatic: The tumor is the result of cancer that begins somewhere else in the body.

Common symptoms of a brain tumor include:

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of a brain tumor, contact your doctor. Early detection and diagnosis are often the key factors in successful treatment.

Other causes of brain swelling

What is the treatment for brain swelling?

Treatment for brain swelling often depends on the cause of the swelling. However, doctors will typically try to reduce the swelling before treating the underlying cause.

Typical treatment to reduce swelling includes:

  • correcting metabolic derangements
  • placing a ventricular shunt
  • managing the fluid
  • controlling blood sugar
  • controlling blood pressure

Your doctor may also recommend steroid medications to help reduce the swelling.

What are the potential complications of brain swelling?

If brain swelling goes untreated, it can lead to many long-term issues and even death.

Complications of brain swelling can include:

  • memory issues
  • sleep issues
  • disability
  • personality or behavioral changes
  • seizures
  • coma
  • death

If you believe that you may have brain swelling or a condition that can cause brain swelling, contact a doctor right away.

Other frequently asked questions

These are more questions that people have asked about brain swelling. Dr. Heidi Moawad, M.D., has medically reviewed these answers.

How can you reduce brain swelling naturally?

There is no natural method to manage and reduce brain swelling. You should always seek medical attention if you show symptoms of brain swelling.

How long can you live with brain swelling?

Untreated brain swelling is almost always fatal. How long this takes can depend on the cause of the swelling. For example, with a large stroke, brain swelling can lead to death within 1 week.

If you have any symptoms of brain swelling or any symptoms of a condition that can cause brain swelling, you should seek treatment immediately.


Brain swelling is a buildup of fluid in and around your brain. This can cause long-term health issues and even lead to death.

Brain swelling is typically due to an injury or an underlying medical condition.

If you have swelling of your brain, it is important to seek immediate medical care. It is almost always fatal if left untreated.

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Medical Reviewer: Heidi Moawad, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 May 30
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.