Clinically apparent cerebral edema is a rare and often fatal complication of diabetic ketoacidosis. To determine whether subclinical brain swelling occurs more commonly, we obtained cranial CT scans in six children with diabetic ketoacidosis treated with fluid resuscitation and continuous low-dose insulin therapy. Control scans were obtained before hospital discharge. Compared with the scans during convalescence, the early scans of all six children showed a narrowing of the brain's ventricular system, compatible with brain swelling. Average changes in diameter were 1.3 +/- 0.1 mm for the third ventricle and 3.7 +/- 0.8 mm for the lateral ventricles (P less than 0.01). In addition, a narrowing of the subarachnoid spaces was subjectively noted during a blind reading of the early scans. Although no single scan was overtly indicative of cerebral edema, the data suggest that subclinical brain swelling may be a common occurrence during treatment of diabetic ketoacidosis in children. Sequential CT scans of the brain may provide a means of evaluating modifications of standard therapy aimed at preventing cerebral edema.