Precocious puberty is when someone’s body begins changing from a child into an adult too soon. The process of changing from a child into an adult is known as puberty, and puberty that begins before age 8 for girls and before age 9 for boys is considered precocious puberty.
Puberty includes rapid growth of bones and muscles, changes in body shape and size, and development of the body’s ability to reproduce.
The cause of precocious puberty often can’t be found. Rarely, conditions such as infections, hormone disorders, tumors, brain abnormalities or injuries may cause precocious puberty. Treatment for precocious puberty typically includes medication to delay further development.
Signs and symptoms of precocious puberty include development of the following before age 8 in girls and before age 9 in boys.
Precocious puberty symptoms in girls include:
First period (menstruation)
Precocious puberty symptoms in boys include:
Enlarged testicles and penis
Facial hair (usually grows first on the upper lip)
Precocious puberty symptoms that can occur in boys or girls include:
Pubic or underarm hair
Adult body odor
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your child’s doctor for an evaluation if your child has any of the signs or symptoms of precocious puberty.
To understand what causes precocious puberty in some children, it’s helpful to know what causes puberty to begin. A number of steps must occur before puberty begins. This process involves the following steps:
The brain starts the process. Part of the brain makes a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (Gn-RH).
The pituitary gland releases more hormones. Gn-RH causes the pituitary gland — a small bean-shaped gland at the base of your brain — to release two more hormones. The hormones are called luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).
Sex hormones are produced. LH and FSH cause the ovaries to produce hormones involved in the growth and development of female sexual characteristics (estrogen) and the testicles to produce hormones responsible for the growth and development of male sexual characteristics (testosterone). The body will also begin to make estrogen and testosterone.
Physical changes occur. The production of estrogen and testosterone causes the physical changes of puberty.
Possible complications of precocious puberty include:
Short height. Children with precocious puberty may grow quickly at first and be tall, compared with their peers. But, because their bones mature more quickly than normal, they often stop growing earlier than usual. This can cause them to be shorter than average as adults. Early treatment of precocious puberty, especially when it occurs in very young children, can help them grow taller than they would without treatment.
Social and emotional problems. Girls and boys who begin puberty long before their peers may be extremely self-conscious about the changes occurring in their bodies. This may affect self-esteem and increase the risk of depression or substance abuse.
Treatment for precocious puberty depends on the cause.
Treating central precocious puberty
Most children with central precocious puberty, in which there’s no underlying medical condition, can be effectively treated with medication. This treatment, called Gn-RH analogue therapy, usually includes a monthly injection of a medication, such as leuprolide (Lupron Depot), which delays further development. The child continues to receive this medication until he or she reaches the normal age of puberty. Once he or she stops receiving the medication, the process of puberty begins again.
Treating an underlying medical condition
If another medical condition is causing your child’s precocious puberty, treatment of that condition is necessary to stop the progress of puberty. For example, if a child has a tumor that’s producing hormones and causing precocious puberty, puberty usually will stop when the tumor is surgically removed.
Some of the risk factors for precocious puberty, such as sex and race, can’t be avoided. But, there are things you can do to reduce your child’s chances of developing precocious puberty, including:
Keeping your child away from external sources of estrogen and testosterone — prescription medications for adults in the house or dietary supplements containing estrogen or testosterone, for example.
Encouraging your child to maintain a healthy weight.