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Second-impact syndrome can be deadly for young concussion victims

Concussions are an all-too-prevalent injury among American youth. Roughly one in five teenagers has suffered from at least one concussion, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Medicine. These injuries commonly happen in sports, bicycle accidents and car accidents.

Most concussion victims make a full recovery within four to six weeks. However, the long-term effects of concussions aren't well understood, especially in children and teenagers whose brains are still developing. This segment of the population also faces a greater risk of a frightening complication that almost always results in death or life-altering brain damage: second-impact syndrome.

What is second-impact syndrome?

This syndrome, while rare and somewhat controversial in the medical literature, is nonetheless something all parents, teachers, sports coaches and young athletes should know about. It occurs when a concussion victim suffers another head injury before they've fully healed from the first.

After the initial concussion, the brain undergoes complex changes to prevent swelling, minimize blood loss and promote healing. During this time, however, the brain is also more susceptible to further damage. It doesn't take much to trigger a second injury. Even a light blow - with no resulting loss of consciousness - can jeopardize the brain's ability to regulate blood flow. Uncontrollable swelling can swiftly follow, leading to seizures and sudden death... all in a matter of minutes.

Although much isn't known about second-impact syndrome, what we do know is alarming. The mortality rate is roughly 50 percent. Those lucky enough to survive are left with extensive brain damage and lifelong impairments.

Given this grim prognosis, awareness and prevention are essential for keeping kids safe. Teenagers involved in high-impact sports like football and boxing are most at risk. Their immature brains are still growing and less able to accommodate rapid swelling. They're also the most likely to overlook an initial concussion.

What should you watch out for?

Take all potential concussions seriously. Headache, nausea, disorientation, fogginess, fatigue and memory loss can all be signs of a concussion, even if you never lost consciousness. Thus, if in doubt, don't return to the field. Instead, get medical help right away.

Most importantly, steer clear of high-impact activities until your symptoms have resolved and a doctor gives you the go-ahead. A clear CT scan doesn't necessarily mean you're out of the woods. As one tragic case illustrates, if you're still suffering from any symptoms whatsoever, you could be a walking time bomb. Better to play it safe.

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