Puberty is a natural biological step that our bodies take as we reach or near our teenage years. However, some people experience puberty earlier than others due to a condition known as early onset puberty.
What Is Early Onset Puberty?
Early onset puberty (also known as precocious puberty) occurs when a child beings to experience the signs of puberty too early. For most girls, puberty begins between the ages of 10 and 14, while boys start puberty between ages 12 and 16. A slight variation beyond these age ranges occasionally happens, but when puberty starts too early it may signal a more serious underlying problem. If a girl begins to go through puberty before the age of 8 or if a boy does before the age of 9, it is considered to be early onset puberty.
The symptoms of early onset puberty are basically the same as those of puberty which begins at a normal age. However, in the case of precocious puberty these symptoms are developing in a child who is considered too young to be going through puberty.
Early onset puberty in girls is marked by the following symptoms developing before age 8:
- Starting to grow at a faster rate
- The development of breasts
- Having her first period (beginning menstruation)
- The maturation of the outer genitals
- Growing armpit or pubic hair
Early onset puberty in boys is marked by the following symptoms developing before age 9:
- Muscle growth
- Growth of the penis and testes
- The development of facial hair, usually on the upper lip first
- Growing armpit or pubic hair
- A voice change that leads to a deeper voice
It’s important to note that, in rare cases, only select symptoms of early onset puberty will appear and then go away. This is usually the case when the symptoms first appear at an extremely young age (between 6 months and 3 years). If a girl begins to develop breasts this early, for example, it’s likely that the breast development may later disappear and that puberty will occur at a normal age later on. This is sometimes referred to as “partial” precocious puberty. However, any child displaying symptoms of early onset puberty should see a doctor to rule out “true” precocious puberty as a condition.
Causes And Risk Factors
There is not always a clear cause of early onset puberty. In some cases, the symptoms of puberty simply appear too soon for no apparent reason. However, some of the possible causes of early onset puberty include:
Brain issues: In rare cases, a problem in the brain ma cause early onset puberty. A brain issue could cause the hypothalamus to trigger the pituitary gland’s release of certain hormones too soon. Conditions that fall under this category include:
- Brain tumor
- Birth defect in the brain, such as excess fluid buildup
- Head trauma from an accident
- Radiation to the brain
Spinal cord issues: Similar to brain issues, a problem in the spinal cord could also trigger precocious puberty. Problems may include an injury to the spinal cord or radiation to the spinal cord.
Gland problems: A problem in the adrenal, pituitary or thyroid glands may also trigger the early onset of puberty. This could include a tumor on the gland itself.
Ovary problems: Girls may experience early onset puberty if they have ovarian tumors or ovarian cysts.
Genetics: Certain genetic diseases and disorder which affect hormone production may cause early onset puberty. About 5 percent of boys with precious puberty have inherited the condition, while less than 1 percent of girls inherit it. These genetic disorders include:
- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia
- McCune-Albright syndrome
- Familial gonadotropin-independent sexual precocity
Exposure to hormones: Children exposed to external sources of estrogen or testosterone (such as certain creams or ointments) may begin puberty too early.
There are several risk factors that increase a child’s chance of experiencing early onset puberty, including:
- Sex: Girls are more likely to experience this condition than boys.
- Certain medical conditions: The conditions listed above increase the risk of early onset puberty. Although they have a lower overall risk, boys are more likely to experience precocious puberty due to an underlying medical problem.
- Ethnicity: African-Americans are more likely to experience precocious puberty.
- Weight: Children who are significantly overweight or obese have a higher risk for early onset puberty.
In many cases, there is no clear cause for early onset puberty. In these cases, a medication is used to delay the development of puberty symptoms until the appropriate age. This treatment generally involves a monthly injection of medication.
When an underlying medical condition causes early onset puberty, that condition is treated in order to stop the development of puberty symptoms. For example, if a tumor is causing precocious puberty, the removal of that tumor will generally cause puberty to stop.
It’s important to get children treated right away if they begin to display signs of puberty too early. Proper treatment can help these children avoid possible complications of the condition, such as short height and social and emotional problems. See your doctor right away if you are concerned that your child may be experiencing precocious puberty.