Child sitting and holding his head.

Most children who experience a concussion—a brain injury often caused by a blow, bump, or jolt to the head—recover well within a week to two, says Robert Cantu, M.D., clinical professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University Medical School and co-founder of its Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center. 

More on concussions

It can be challenging to figure out whether your child might have a concussion, then how to best treat it so that he or she heals properly. But now there's more help: Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued first-time guidelines for diagnosing and managing mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBI, often called concussions) in youngsters.  

Prior guidelines were helpful but were either for adults or focused only on concussions sustained during sports, such as football and soccer. These encompass concussions from all causes—including falls and auto accidents—as well.

Here's more on what these guidelines and other expert sources advise.

Check for signs of concussion. If your child receives a head blow, look for symptoms such as headache, lethargy, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and noise and light sensitivity. For contact sports, kids should be removed from game play and not return to play on the day of a concussion, even if symptoms resolve, According to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

And be watchful for other symptoms, such as sleep problems and mood changes. According to the CDC, some symptoms may emerge right after a head injury, and others may take hours or even days to surface—or only become noticeable when kids try to engage in their usual activities. 

Know when to get medical attention. If you suspect a concussion, bring your child to a healthcare provider, who can assess the injury and advise you on concussion treatment. Call 911 or head to the emergency room for any youngster who loses consciousness, even briefly; is very drowsy or vomiting; or experiences blurred or double vision, persistent and worsening headache, disorientation, tingling on one side of the body, one pupil that's larger than the other, weakness, or difficulty with balance, language, hearing, or speech. 

Skip the scan, most of the time. Imaging tests, such as CT scans, aren't needed for diagnosing a concussion, according to the new guidelines. They won't show whether your child has a concussion or not, and they expose youngsters to radiation. Blood tests haven't been shown to be effective either, note the guidelines.

Instead, doctors should examine kids with suspected concussions, ask questions about the injury and the symptoms, and use what are called symptoms scales—to help determine the severity of symptoms. They should also be attentive for factors like prior concussions, a history of pre-concussion headaches, and learning issues, which may increase the likelihood of a prolonged recovery period. 

Scans may be needed if the doctor suspects a more serious injury, such as a skull fracture or brain bleed, or if your youngster is unconscious or has headaches that are severe and worsening, or has been in a car or other serious accident, exhibits strange behavior, is toddler-age or younger, or is experiencing hearing or vision loss, or tingling on one side of the body.

Let them take it easy, but not for too long. We’ve long heard that after a concussion, people should rest their bodies and brains. But lying in bed for too long may not be helpful.

A study published in 2016 in JAMA, which looked at more than 3,000 children who'd been diagnosed with concussions in ERs, suggests that those who'd done no physical activity in the first seven days after injury were more likely to have persistent symptoms a month later than those who had been somewhat active during that time.

“Data shows that it’s okay to have some physical activity a day or so after a concussion," says Frederick Rivara, M.D., M.P.H., professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and Seattle Children's Hospital. "Complete rest is shown to increase, not decrease, the duration of symptoms.”

But kids shouldn't go right back to intense physical activity. The new guidelines recommend two to three days of rest for children after a concussion, then a gradual return to nonsports activities. (Think walking, for example, not skateboarding or contact sports.)

In terms of rest for the brain, “aside from a day or two of not spending a lot of time watching TV or video games, there’s no good evidence that this is effective,” Rivara says. But if either mental or physical activity leads to a resurgence of symptoms, back off, wait a day or two, and try again.

And make sure any adults who are with your child when you are not are clear on the treatment plan and expectations, and that school and sports personnel know to alert you if they see any concerning symptoms. 

Get kids cleared before they return to play. The American Academy of Neurology recommends waiting for more intense physical activity until all symptoms have subsided and no medications—such as pain relievers—are needed. The organization also suggests that a healthcare professional trained in the diagnosis and management of concussion give his or her okay.

It's important to take the time that's needed: Youngsters are at higher risk for another concussion if they haven't fully healed from the initial concussion, and that can lead to serious injury.

Take action when symptoms linger. Some 15 percent of youngsters may have symptoms that persist for months, and a smaller group may have issues for more than a year, Cantu says.

If your child is still having symptoms after about 10 days or begins to have more significant symptoms from lighter head blows after the initial concussion, or you are unsure whether it's a concussion or another problem, UpToDate, an online decision-making tool for doctors, recommends seeing a specialist in pediatric concussion. These include neurologists, physiatrists, and sports medicine specialists.