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Concussions and head injuries in children: Care instructions

Concussions and Head Injuries in Children

Care instructions

What is a concussion?

A concussion is a brain injury caused by an impact or hit (also called a direct blow) to the head, face or neck. A concussion can also be caused by a blow to the body that sends a force to the head. Your child can have a concussion even if they don’t pass out (lose consciousness). Your child’s doctor can diagnose a concussion based on the signs and symptoms. Medical imaging tests such as x-rays, CT scans, or MRI scans usually can’t diagnose a concussion.

A concussion may be called a minor head trauma or minor brain injury. It may also be called a head injury or a mild traumatic brain injury. A simple hit to the head without any signs or symptoms is not a concussion.

What are the symptoms of a concussion?

Symptoms of a concussion may include:

  • having a headache
  • feeling dizzy
  • feeling sick to your stomach or vomiting
  • being sleepy (drowsy)
  • having a hard time waking up, falling asleep, or staying asleep
  • having a hard time concentrating, paying attention, or remembering
  • being anxious, depressed or cranky (irritable)

These symptoms will usually last for 7 to 10 days. Most children and teens will stop showing signs and symptoms and fully recover by 1 month. If your child has had a concussion before or gets migraines, it may take longer for them to recover.

When does my child need emergency care?

Even if your child has already been seen by a doctor and you know the child has a concussion, go to your nearest emergency department right away if your child has any of these symptoms:

  • a headache that gets worse after taking headache medicine or includes vomiting or waking up at night
  • sudden weakness in the arms or legs
  • mood that is a lot crankier or confused than usual, or behaviour that is different than normal
  • sleeps a lot more than usual or is harder to wake up than usual
  • vomiting that won’t stop
  • slurred speech
  • trouble seeing or complains that things look blurry
  • a lot of trouble walking, moving their arms and legs, or talking
  • seizures

What does my child need in the first 1 to 2 days?

Your child should stay home from school or daycare and avoid intense physical and mental activity for the first 1 to 2 days to let the brain heal and prevent another concussion. Resting and avoiding another head injury are the most important treatments right after a concussion.

Rest means your child‘s physical activity is limited to walking and light exercise that doesn’t cause them to sweat. Mental activities will depend on your child’s age and can include:

  • crafts
  • colouring
  • board games
  • puzzles
  • being read a story
  • light reading
  • watching TV or using a computer for short periods of time (limit screen time)

How can I care for my child as they recover?

The following tips will help you care for your child as they recover from a concussion.

  • Give your child prescription medicines as directed by your child’s healthcare provider.
  • You can give your child over-the-counter pain medicine (ibuprofen such as Advil or Motrin or acetaminophen such as Tylenol) for the first few days.
    • Follow the instructions on the bottle for the dose your child needs.
    • Don’t give your child ibuprofen or acetaminophen regularly for more than 2 weeks as that may lead to headaches caused by the pain medicine (called rebound headaches).
  • Make sure your child eats and drinks normally and that they are drinking enough water.
  • Limit any caffeine your child gets from coffee, tea, chocolate, carbonated drinks, energy drinks, and some over-the-counter medicines for 4 to 6 hours before bedtime.
  • Don’t let your child drive for the first 2 days (if your child has a driver’s licence).
  • Warn your teen that they should not drink alcohol or take recreational drugs, including cannabis (marijuana), as those drugs may hide signs and symptoms of a concussion. They may also make your child feel worse or delay their recovery.
  • Follow the Return to School and Return to Sport steps to return to activities safely.
  • Follow a bedtime and wake-up routine for your child. Help them to:
    • Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time each day.
    • Do something relaxing before bed, such as taking a warm bath about 1 hour before bed.
    • Take only 1 nap a day (if they nap) and nap before 3 p.m., for no longer than 30 minutes. They should nap in a bed (not in front of a TV).
    • Avoid screen time (computer and cellphone time including video games, texting, and reading online) for at least 30 minutes before bed.

Supporting your child

Children often have mood changes and anxiety as they recover from a brain injury. Many children worry about failing at school or not being active. Worrying may make symptoms worse or make recovery time longer. Let your child know that having these feelings is normal and offer encouragement and support. Some children may need support from a counsellor.

If you child is not better after 4 weeks, talk to your healthcare provider and ask for a referral to a pediatrician (a doctor who specializes in children’s health), a concussion specialist, or a neurologist.

Returning to normal activities

If your child seems to be doing well after 1 to 2 days of rest, they should start doing more activity, using the steps in Concussion in Children: Returning to School and Sport. Your child should start working on these steps within 5 days of the concussion.

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Current as of: January 14, 2023

Author: Maternal Newborn Child and Youth Strategic Clinical Network, Alberta Health Services

This material is not a substitute for the advice of a qualified health professional. This material is intended for general information only and is provided on an "as is", "where is" basis. Although reasonable efforts were made to confirm the accuracy of the information, Alberta Health Services does not make any representation or warranty, express, implied or statutory, as to the accuracy, reliability, completeness, applicability or fitness for a particular purpose of such information. Alberta Health Services expressly disclaims all liability for the use of these materials, and for any claims, actions, demands or suits arising from such use.