If you’re like most people, you probably think stroke only happens to elderly people or, at most, to adults. But children and even infants can suffer stroke, too. Even an unborn baby can suffer a stroke. In fact, the American Heart Association reports that stroke is one of the top 10 causes of death for American children, and 50 to 80 percent of children who survive stroke will live with permanent disabilities, including partial or total paralysis on one side of the body, speech problems, vision problems, behavioral problems, epilepsy, and attention problems.
There are a number of factors that can raise a child’s risk of stroke. They include pregnancy complications like maternal preeclampsia, a previous history of infertility in the mother, head trauma, heart disease, and sickle cell disease. New research suggests that in rare cases, a minor cold or flu can increase a child’s risk of suffering a stroke.
Stroke Risk in Children
Data from the American Heart Association show that 11 out of 100,000 children will suffer a stroke at some point between birth and age 18. Stroke risk for children is highest between birth and age one, with the weeks immediately prior to and immediately following birth being the most dangerous for pediatric stroke. Perinatal stroke occurs during one in every 4,000 births. Boys are more likely than girls to suffer a pediatric stroke, and children of African American descent are more prone to pediatric stroke than children of Asian or Caucasian descent. Five to 10 percent of children who have a stroke die from it.
Symptoms of Stroke in Children
The symptoms of stroke in children may be similar to those of stroke in adults, or they may be very different. Symptoms of childhood stroke include:
- Sudden trouble speaking
- Sudden vision loss
- Sudden loss of balance
In infants, stroke may initially cause a seizure that affects just one limb. Babies who experience a stroke during or immediately after birth may display no symptoms right away, but then demonstrate developmental delays or other neurological problems later. About one-fifth of children who have a stroke will have another stroke, but preventative treatment with medications like Plavix can help.
Respiratory Infections and Pediatric Stroke Risk
A study of medical data collected from 2.5 million children treated in Northern California between 1993 and 2007 found that children who develop a mild upper respiratory infection are at an increased risk of pediatric stroke within the first three days after diagnosis.
The researchers came to this conclusion after studying the medical records of 102 children who received treatment for stroke during the study period. The children who had strokes were 12 times more likely than those who did not have strokes to have been diagnosed with a mild upper respiratory infection during the three days immediately prior to their strokes. Kids with major head and neck infections, like sepsis and meningitis, were excluded from the study, which focused only on those children diagnosed with the sorts of minor infections common in children.
While heart conditions, sickle cell disease, and other chronic conditions can raise the risk of pediatric stroke, kids who have been otherwise healthy have been known to suffer from stroke, too. The researchers believe that the link between minor infection and pediatric stroke may lie in acute arterial inflammation and increased blood clotting triggered by the infection itself. Such inflammation is already recognized as a potential stroke risk factor for adults.
Though the results of this study suggest a new risk factor for pediatric stroke, the researchers are quick to point out that the incidence of cold or flu-related pediatric stroke is rare. Of the children studied, about one million experienced a mild upper respiratory infection. Only 10 of those children suffered a cold or flu-related stroke. But, for kids already at an increased risk of pediatric stroke, the study results are important. The researchers also point out that parents and pediatricians alike need to be aware that stroke can be a serious, if rare, complication of childhood cold or flu. However, the increased risk of infection-related stroke recedes when the infection itself runs its course.
If you thought strokes only happen to adults, think again. Pediatric stroke affects 11 in 100,000 children, and can lead to permanent disability or death. It’s even been found to be a rare complication of childhood cold or flu. While you shouldn’t worry too much about your child developing a stroke the next time he or she gets a cold or flu, you should be aware of the possibility — and seek medical attention right away if your child demonstrates stroke symptoms.