Hydrocephalus, or excess fluid in the brain, causes slightly different symptoms depending on the type of hydrocephalus and the age of the person affected.

Hydrocephalus from birth

Babies born with hydrocephalus (congenital hydrocephalus) often have distinctive physical features.

These can include:

Congenital hydrocephalus can also cause:

Congenital hydrocephalus is sometimes found before a baby is born during an ultrasound scan.

However, it's usually diagnosed soon after birth during the newborn physical examination. The condition may be suspected if your baby's head is larger than normal.

Hydrocephalus that develops in children or adults

Hydrocephalus that develops in children or adults (acquired hydrocephalus) can cause headaches.

The headache may be worse when you wake up in the morning. This is because the fluid in your brain does not drain as well while you're lying down and may have built up overnight.

Sitting up for a while may improve the headache. However, as the condition progresses, headaches may become continuous.

Other symptoms of acquired hydrocephalus include:

Call a GP or use NHS 111 if you think you or your child may have symptoms of hydrocephalus.

Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH)

The symptoms of normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) tend to affect older people and usually develop slowly, over many months or years.

NPH has 3 sets of distinctive symptoms. It affects:

How you walk

The first noticeable symptom of NPH is a change in how you walk (your gait). You may find it increasingly difficult to take the first step when you want to start walking.

Some people have described it as feeling as though they're frozen to the spot. You may also shuffle rather than take proper steps.

As the condition progresses, you may become increasingly unsteady on your feet and be more likely to fall, particularly when turning.

Urinary symptoms

The change in the way you walk is often followed by bouts of urinary incontinence, which may include symptoms such as:

Mental abilities

The normal thinking process also starts to slow down. For example, a person may:

These symptoms may be a sign of mild dementia. They should start to improve when NPH is treated.

Read more about how NPH is treated.

Page last reviewed: 6 February 2023
Next review due: 6 February 2026