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A doctor explains what do if you hit or head — and when to seek help

In the wake of Bob Saget's tragic death from an accidental head trauma, a doctor shares what you need to know about head injuries.

A month after Bob Saget was found dead in an Orlando hotel room, his family revealed that the late comedian died from an accidental head injury.

“The authorities have determined that Bob passed from head trauma,” Saget’s family said in a statement to NBC News. “They have concluded that he accidentally hit the back of his head on something, thought nothing of it and went to sleep. No drugs or alcohol were involved.”

While no further details have been released about the exact type of head trauma Saget suffered, this tragedy highlights the importance of taking head injuries seriously, and knowing when to seek medical help.

Dr. John Torres, NBC’s senior medical correspondent, spoke with TODAY about warning signs to look for after hitting your head, and how to tell whether that simple bump may actually be more serious.

How do you know if a head injury is serious?

Almost everyone has bumped their head on a door frame or a kitchen cabinet at some point, but how do you know if the injury is bad enough to go to the hospital? According to Torres, the below symptoms are telltale signs of a more serious issue:

  • A headache that continues after the injury or gets worse.
  • Visual disturbances, or pupils looking “a little off."
  • Dizziness, nausea or vomiting, particularly projectile vomiting.
  • Confusion.

If someone experiences any of the above symptoms persistently, that signals to Torres that they should be closely monitored.

“They’re probably going to need a CAT scan of their head to make sure there isn’t any bleeding inside there,” he said, “because there can be subtle signs that build up over time and get to the point where they can’t really be taken care of.”

Will symptoms always show up right away after a head trauma?

After hitting your head, you may experience some initial symptoms such as a headache or confusion. These symptoms may soon subside, and you may think you are fine.

However, this does not mean the head injury isn’t serious, Torres warns. After a head trauma, you may experience an initial “lucid period” before things take a dangerous and possibly fatal turn.

This may be what happened with Saget, who, according to his family’s statement, “thought nothing of” his head injury “and went to sleep.”

“What happened here with Bob Saget is very typical of what happens with what we call an epidural hematoma, which is a high-pressure bleeding inside the brain,” Torres said. “Typically they can hit their head … and then they have what’s called a lucid period. Initially they have a few symptoms, usually a headache, maybe vision disturbances, maybe a bit of confusion, then they have a lucid period that can be minutes or hours where they feel like they’re normal.”

However, “then they start coming back with these heavy symptoms, and that’s when they usually end up having issues like this, and unfortunately in cases like this, they can die from it.”

Torres compared Saget’s case to the death of the late actor Natasha Richardson, who died in 2009 following a skiing accident. After hitting her head on the slopes, she initially felt fine, but she then died two days later from bleeding between the skull and the brain.

“She hit her head on the snow, on the ice, had some headaches, had some issues like that, cleared up, and then ended up having this epidural hematoma,” he said.

Can even a light bump be dangerous?

Not all bumps to the head will lead to serious head trauma.  

“With this kind of outcome (in cases like Saget's), typically it is a hard hit,” Torres said. “This is not a simple head injury. This is not bumping your head on the cabinet when you walk by something in the kitchen. This is usually falling, often car accidents, and sometimes assaults to the head. Those are typically the reasons somebody has something like this.”

That said, when in any doubt, if you are at all concerned about your head injury — and especially if you are experiencing the symptoms mentioned above such as a headache, visual disturbances, dizziness, vomiting or confusion — always stay on the safe side and seek medical attention, Torres said.