Don’t let a concussion take you by surprise—learning the signs can save your child’s life.

School sports keep kids physically fit and teach them important life lessons like the value of teamwork. Unfortunately, the pressure to stay in the game for their team sometimes can take priority over kids’ health. 

“There’s a lot of children that don’t want to report concussion symptoms because they feel like they're letting their team down,” says Sue Kirelik, MD an emergency medicine pediatrician and Medical Director of the Rocky Mountain Center for Concussion.

But every possible concussion must be taken seriously because it can put a child’s memory, their health and even their life at risk.

What’s a concussion?

A concussion is a brain injury that comes from a hit to the head or a blow to the body that causes the brain to shake around inside the skull. Concussion symptoms can be subtle or take days to show up. You might miss them if the possibility of a head injury isn’t on your radar—50% of concussions happen outside of team sports when kids might just be going about their everyday routine. 

What’s more, most kids don’t actually pass out from a concussion and some don’t even get a headache, says Dr. Kirelik. That’s why parents, teachers and coaches need to know all the signs and be on alert after every shake or blow to the head. Here’s what to look out for. 

Concussion symptoms aren’t always obvious

Concussions can affect kids in some surprising ways. Your child may experience: 

Physical symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Being easily bothered by lights or sounds
  • Blurry vision, seeing double
  • Dizziness, fainting

Emotional symptoms:

  • Feeling sad, tearful
  • Anxious or depressed
  • Easily annoyed

Thinking symptoms:

  • Having a hard time focusing or answering questions
  • Memory loss
  • General confusion
  • Feeling mentally slow or “foggy” 

Sleeping symptoms:

  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Feeling drowsy
  • Having a hard time falling or staying asleep 

Symptoms might clear up right away, or they may linger for days-to-months. They also can come and go or get worse when kids are concentrating on schoolwork or video games. 

That’s why it’s so important to let a doctor check on your child right away: they can speed up recovery time by giving your child the correct treatments like pain or nausea medicine, and instructions on which activities they should avoid, explains Dr. Kirelik. 

If your child gets hit, jolted or has a head injury

“If they experience a significant hit, pull your child out of the game or activity and have them checked for signs or symptoms of a concussion,” says Dr. Kirelik. 

Let their team doctor or pediatrician examine them, and then continue to watch them closely for any of the symptoms listed above for the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours. If they’re diagnosed with a concussion, the most important treatment for your child’s brain is rest. 

If they don’t have any concussion symptoms during those first two days, they can probably go back to all of their regular activities. But the final decision about when it’s safe to return to sports, school and play should be made by their doctor. 

Rest is the number-one concussion treatment

Your child may need to rest for more than two days, depending on their symptoms. Ask their doctor for instructions about what they can and can’t do during that time. For example, kids might think “resting” means planting themselves in front of their video games. 

“Avoiding electronics is important because a lot of times eye function is affected by a concussion—texting, video games and TV can strain the eyes and trigger concussion symptoms. Stay away from electronics for at least the first couple of days and then add them back in gradually,” recommends Dr. Kirelik. 

Restful activities that are okay might include listening to music or audio books, relaxing with family members, playing board games or possibly doing some light reading. 

When to call 9-1-1

“Go to the emergency department if your child’s level of alertness changes, if they’re disoriented, vomiting or they have severe neck pain or a terrible headache that won’t go away,” says Kirelik. 

Also call 9-1-1 if your child:

  • Passes out, even if it’s just for a few seconds
  • Has tingling or numbness in their arms or legs
  • Keeps drifting off or you can’t wake them up
  • Isn’t making sense when they speak
  • Has pupil sizes that don’t match
  • Has bloody fluid coming out of their nose or ears
  • Has a seizure, or sudden, uncontrollable shaking or stiffness

When in doubt, pull your child off the field or out of their activity. Putting them back in the game or letting them return to play too soon increases their risk of another concussion, which is more likely to be life threatening. 

That big game or their school test the next day might seem like the most important thing in their world at the moment. But letting their brain rest will help your child achieve great things in the long run.