Warning signs of a concussion

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Every year, hundreds of thousands of children get concussions. They get them from falls, from playing sports, from being hit by objects, from bumping into things. What many people don’t realize is that it doesn’t necessarily take a big impact to get a concussion. One of my daughters got a concussion from bumping into a low-hanging tree branch — and another got one from being elbowed in the head during a swim team practice.

Concussions happen when there is not only impact, but also movement, like jerking back and forth. That’s why helmets such as bike or football helmets don’t necessarily prevent concussions. Helmets can prevent skull fractures and other head injuries, but they don’t hold the head still.

Concussion symptoms

Recognizing a concussion is important. While there is no particular treatment to cure one, allowing children to rest both physically and mentally can help symptoms go away faster. Also — and this is crucial — it’s extremely important to take action to prevent additional concussions, especially in the first few weeks and months after a concussion, while the brain is still healing. Additional concussions can lead to permanent brain damage. An extreme case would be the brain damage we’ve been hearing about in professional football players. But even in less extreme cases, repeated concussions can lead to permanent problems with thinking, learning, memory, and emotions.

Sometimes there are immediate signs after an injury that there has been a concussion. These immediate signs can include:

  • losing consciousness (passing out) or being very sleepy, hard to keep awake
  • severe head pain
  • dizziness, with difficulty standing or walking
  • confusion, or not remembering what happened
  • severe nausea, perhaps but not always with vomiting
  • seizures

If any of these happen, children should get immediate medical attention.

Less obvious signs of a concussion

However, sometimes the signs are subtle, and can last for weeks or months after a concussion. These can include:

  • persistent headache
  • persistent mild nausea
  • trouble concentrating
  • difficulty remembering and learning new information
  • fatigue, low energy, or feeling slowed down
  • moodiness or irritability
  • problems with sleep — both having trouble sleeping and sleeping more than usual
  • dizziness or trouble with coordination and balance
  • blurry vision or other problems with vision.

Now, of course, there are many things that can cause these symptoms. No matter what the cause, these symptoms warrant a call to the doctor. But if you are noticing any of them in someone who had a bump to the head — even if it didn’t seem like such a big deal at the time — they could be signs of a concussion.

To learn more about concussions and how to recognize, treat, and prevent them, visit Heads Up on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.


  1. Dr Mohsin Ali


Commenting has been closed for this post.