What is Cerebral Edema?

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Cerebral edema is a serious condition in which either part of the brain or the entire brain swells due to injury or illness. This lesson will briefly cover why cerebral edema is so dangerous along with some of the causes and symptoms.

Cerebral Edema

Before we jump into the nitty gritty details, let's break apart the term cerebral edema. The word cerebral refers to the brain, and the word edema means swelling or fluid (typically water) retention. Right away, we can see that cerebral edema simply means swelling of the brain.

Now that we have semantics out of the way, what should we know about cerebral edema? It's actually a very serious condition because, if left untreated, it can lead to death. On top of that, it's actually quite difficult to treat, so you can see how this quickly becomes a problem.


So what causes cerebral edema? Well, the first thing that probably pops into your mind is a traumatic brain injury, like a fall or a vehicle accident, and you'd be right! But, diseases and illnesses, like a stroke, bleeding in the brain (also known as a brain hemorrhage), or a tumor, can also cause a cerebral edema. Other causes can include infections or even high altitude.

The cause often impacts how much of the brain is affected by swelling. For example, an injury is more likely to cause swelling in a localized area of the brain, whereas swelling due to high altitude is more likely to affect the entire brain.


We already know that cerebral edema is difficult to treat and can lead to death, but what actually happens when the brain swells? One of the biggest problems is that the brain is encased in the skull. Most of the time, that's a handy trait, but when the brain is swelling, the skull doesn't allow much ''extra'' room for expansion. As a result, the brain can end up pressing on the inside of the skull, putting pressure on the brain itself. This pressure can block blood flow, which deprives either part or all of the brain of oxygen.

As you already know, oxygen is critical to all of the body's processes and functions. If parts of the brain are deprived of oxygen for too long, cells begin to die and permanent damage occurs. Therefore, symptoms of cerebral edema usually appear suddenly, and they may include:

  • headache
  • nausea
  • neck pain
  • dizziness
  • difficulty breathing
  • changes in vision or memory
  • disrupted speech
  • loss of motor skills
  • seizures or loss of consciousness

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing cerebral edema is most commonly done through a physical exam and the use of imaging scans. Specifically, a computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan can illuminate which part or parts of the brain are experiencing swelling.

A CT scan produces an image like this, and swelling can be detected.
CT scan

Some minor cases of cerebral edema go away on their own within a few days. Others require some type of treatment intervention before permanent damage occurs.

The primary goal of treatment is to ensure the brain receives adequate oxygen, and this can be done through oxygen therapy or medication. Other treatments may include surgical procedures, lowering the body's temperature, or administering intravenous (IV) fluids to keep blood pressure from dropping too low. The faster the swelling is eliminated, the less likely the patient will suffer from any permanent effects or symptoms.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account