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What is microcephaly?

Microcephaly is a birth defect in which the baby's head is much smaller than normal.

During pregnancy, the baby's head grows because the brain grows. If the baby's brain doesn't develop properly during pregnancy or stops growing after birth, microcephaly can be the result. It can happen on its own or in combination with other major birth defects.

This uncommon birth defect has been in the spotlight recently because it can be caused by Zika virus infection during pregnancy.

Problems caused by microcephaly

Depending on how severe the condition is, babies with microcephaly can have a range of problems, including these:

  • Seizures
  • Developmental delays, such as problems with speech and other developmental milestones (like sitting, standing, and walking)
  • Intellectual disability (reduced ability to learn and function in daily life)
  • Problems with movement and balance
  • Feeding problems, such as difficulty swallowing
  • Hearing loss
  • Vision problems

These problems can range from mild to severe and are often lifelong. In some cases, they're life-threatening. Because it's hard to predict at birth what the problems will be for an individual baby with microcephaly, the growth and development of children with microcephaly may be closely monitored at doctor visits.

How common is microcephaly?

Microcephaly is not a common condition. State birth defects tracking systems have estimated that microcephaly occurs in 2 to 12 babies per 10,000 live births in the United States.

Causes and risk factors

The causes of microcephaly in most babies are unknown. Genetic defects cause microcephaly in some babies. These exposures during pregnancy can also cause microcephaly:

  • Certain infections, such as Zika, rubella, toxoplasmosis, or cytomegalovirus
  • Severe malnutrition (a lack of nutrients or not enough food)
  • Exposure to harmful substances, such as alcohol, certain drugs, or toxic chemicals

How microcephaly is diagnosed

Microcephaly can be diagnosed during pregnancy or after birth.

During pregnancy, microcephaly can sometimes be diagnosed during an ultrasound late in the second trimester or early in the third trimester.

Microcephaly is diagnosed after birth by measuring the distance around a newborn baby's head, also called the head circumference. This measurement is then compared to population standards by sex and age.

Healthcare providers may wait to take the head circumference measurement until a baby is at least 24 hours old. This allows the baby's head to round out to its true size after being compressed during delivery through the birth canal.

When microcephaly is suspected, healthcare providers can request one or more tests to help confirm the diagnosis. For example, tests like a CT scan or an MRI provide critical information about brain structure that can help doctors determine whether the newborn baby had an infection during pregnancy and look for other problems the child may have.

Treatments for microcephaly

Microcephaly is a lifelong condition. There is no known cure or standard treatment for it.

Because microcephaly can range from mild to severe, treatment options vary as well. Babies with mild microcephaly often don't have any problems other than small head size. These babies need only routine checkups to monitor their growth and development.

Babies with more severe microcephaly will need care and treatment focused on managing their health problems. Developmental services early in life ("early intervention") can help them improve their physical and intellectual abilities.

Early intervention may include speech, occupational, and physical therapies. Medications may be needed to treat seizures or other symptoms.

Researchers are also studying the possible link between the Zika virus and microcephaly.

More information

Provides comprehensive information for mothers, healthcare professionals, and the general public about exposures during pregnancy.

Watch the video: Ultrasound Video showing Microcephaly small head associated with microencephaly small brain. (October 2022).

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