Brain tumours

A brain tumour is a growth of cells in the brain that multiplies in an abnormal, uncontrollable way. See your GP if you have the symptoms below, particularly if you have a severe and persistent headache. You may not have a brain tumour but these symptoms should be checked out.

Grades and types of brain tumour

Brain tumours are graded according to how fast they grow and how likely they are to grow back after treatment.

Grade one and two tumours are low grade, and grade three and four tumours are high grade.

There are two main types of brain tumour:

  • non-cancerous (benign) brain tumours – are low grade (grade one or two), which means they grow slowly and are less likely to return after treatment
  • cancerous (malignant) brain tumours – are high grade (grade three or four) and either start in the brain (primary tumours) or spread into the brain from elsewhere (secondary tumours); they're more likely to grow back after treatment

Symptoms of a brain tumour

The symptoms of a brain tumour vary depending on the exact part of the brain affected. Common symptoms include:

  • severe, persistent headaches
  • seizures (fits)
  • persistent nausea, vomiting and drowsiness
  • mental or behavioural changes, such as memory problems or changes in personality
  • progressive weakness or paralysis on one side of the body
  • vision or speech problems

Sometimes, you may not have any symptoms to begin with or they may only develop very slowly over time.

When to see your GP

See your GP if you have the above symptoms, particularly if you have a severe and persistent headache. You may not have a brain tumour but these types of symptoms should be checked out.

If your GP can't identify a more likely cause of your symptoms, they may refer you to a neurologist (a brain and nervous system specialist) for further assessment and tests, such as a brain scan.

Causes and risks

The cause of most brain tumours is unknown. But there are a number of risk factors that may increase your chances of developing a brain tumour.

Risk factors include:

  • age – the risk of getting a brain tumour increases with age, although some types of brain tumour are more common in children
  • previous cancers – children who've had cancer have a higher risk of getting a brain tumour in later life; adults who've had leukaemia or non-Hodgkin lymphoma also have an increased risk
  • radiation – exposure to radiation accounts for a very small number of brain tumours; some types of brain tumour are more common in people who've had radiotherapy, CT scans or X-rays to the head
  • family history and genetic conditions – some genetic conditions are known to increase the risk of getting a brain tumour, including tuberous sclerosis, neurofibromatosis type 1, neurofibromatosis type 2 and Turner syndrome
  • HIV or AIDS – compared to the general population, you're about twice as likely to develop a brain tumour if you have HIV or AIDS

Links between mobile phones and brain tumours

Current evidence suggests mobile phones don't cause health problems such as brain tumours.

Who's affected

Brain tumours can affect people of any age, including children, although they tend to be more common in older adults.

More on brain tumours 

For more information on the two main types of brain tumour see:

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published May 2018

This page is due for review July 2020

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