Headaches in children are common and usually aren't serious. Like adults, children can develop different types of headaches, including migraine or stress-related (tension) headaches. Children can also have chronic daily headaches.
In some cases, headaches in children are caused by an infection, high levels of stress or anxiety, or minor head trauma. It's important to pay attention to your child's headache symptoms and consult a doctor if the headache worsens or occurs frequently. Headaches in children usually can be treated with over-the-counter pain medications and other lifestyle measures.
Children get the same types of headaches adults do, but their symptoms may differ. For example, a migraine in an adult usually starts early in the morning, but a child's is more likely to develop in the late afternoon. Also, migraine pain in children may last less than four hours, whereas in adults, migraines last at least four hours. Such differences may make it difficult to pinpoint headache type in a child, especially in a younger child who can't describe symptoms.
In general, though, certain symptoms tend to fall more frequently under certain categories.
Migraines can cause:
- Pulsating, throbbing or pounding head pain
- Pain that worsens with exertion
- Abdominal pain
- Extreme sensitivity to light and sound
Even infants can have migraines. A child who's too young to tell you what's wrong may cry and hold his or her head to indicate severe pain.
Tension-type headaches can cause:
- A pressing tightness in the muscles of the head or neck
- Mild to moderate, nonpulsating pain on both sides of the head
- Pain that's not worsened by physical activity
- Headache that's not accompanied by nausea or vomiting, as is often the case with migraine
Younger children may withdraw from regular play and want to sleep more. Tension-type headaches can last from 30 minutes to several days.
Cluster headaches are uncommon in children under 12 years of age. They usually:
- Occur in groups of five or more episodes, ranging from one headache every other day to eight a day
- Involve sharp, stabbing pain on one side of the head that lasts from 15 minutes to three hours
- Are accompanied by teariness, congestion, runny nose, or restlessness or agitation
Chronic daily headache
Doctors use the phrase "chronic daily headache" (CDH) for migraine headaches and tension-type headaches that occur more than 15 days a month for more than three months. CDH may be caused by an infection, minor head injury or taking pain medications — even nonprescription pain medications — too often.
When to see a doctor
Most headaches aren't serious, but seek prompt medical care if your child's headaches:
- Wake your child from sleep
- Worsen or become more frequent
- Change your child's personality
- Follow an injury, such as a blow to the head to
- Feature persistent vomiting or visual changes
- Are accompanied by fever and neck pain or stiffness
A number of factors can cause your child to develop headache. Factors include:
- Illness and infection. Common illnesses such as colds, flu, and ear and sinus infections are some of the most frequent causes of headache in children. More-serious infections, such as meningitis or encephalitis, also can cause headache, but are usually accompanied by other signs and symptoms, such as fever and neck stiffness.
- Head trauma. Bumps and bruises can cause headaches. Although most head injuries are minor, seek prompt medical attention if your child falls hard on his or her head or gets hit hard in the head. Also, contact a doctor if your child's head pain steadily worsens after a head injury.
- Emotional factors. Stress and anxiety — perhaps triggered by problems with peers, teachers or parents — can play a role in children's headaches. Children with depression may complain of headaches, particularly if they have trouble recognizing feelings of sadness and loneliness.
- Genetic predisposition. Headaches, particularly migraines, tend to run in families.
- Certain foods and beverages. Nitrates — a food preservative found in cured meats, such as bacon, bologna and hot dogs — can trigger headaches, as can the food additive MSG. Also, too much caffeine — contained in soda, chocolates, coffees and teas — can cause headaches.
- Problems in the brain. Rarely, a brain tumor or abscess or bleeding in the brain can press on areas of the brain, causing a chronic, worsening headache. Typically in these cases, however, there are other symptoms, such as visual problems, dizziness and lack of coordination.
Any child can develop headaches, but they're more common in:
- Girls after they reach puberty
- Children who have a family history of headaches or migraines
Typically, you make an appointment with your family doctor or your child's pediatrician. Depending on the frequency and severity of your child's symptoms, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in conditions of the brain and nervous system (neurologist).
Here's information to help you get ready for your child's appointment and to know what to expect from the doctor.
What you can do
- Write down your child's signs and symptoms, when they occurred, and how long they lasted. It may help to keep a headache diary — listing each headache, when it happens, how long it lasts and what might have caused it.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements your child is taking.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
For headaches in children, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What is likely causing the symptoms?
- Are tests needed to confirm the diagnosis?
- What is the best course of action?
- Does my child need prescription medication, or would an over-the-counter medication work?
- What follow-up, if any, is needed?
- What can we do at home to lessen the pain?
- What can we do at home to prevent headaches?
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions you have.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:
- When did the symptoms start?
- How often does your child experience these symptoms?
- How long does the headache usually last?
- Where does the pain occur?
- Have the symptoms been continuous or intermittent?
- Does your child have other symptoms, such as nausea or dizziness?
- What, if anything, makes it better?
- What, if anything, makes it worse?
- Have the symptoms changed over time?
- What treatments have you tried?
- What medications does your child take?
- Do other family members get headaches?
What you can do in the meantime
Until you see your child's doctor, if your child has a headache, place a cool, wet cloth on your child's forehead and encourage him or her to rest in a dark, quiet room.
Consider giving your child over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Children's Motrin, others) to ease symptoms. Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Though aspirin is approved for use in children older than age 2, children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. This is because aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition, in such children. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.
To learn about the nature of your child's headache, your doctor will likely look to:
- Headache history. Your doctor asks you and your child to describe the headaches in detail, to see if there's a pattern or a common trigger. Your doctor may also ask you to keep a headache diary for a time, so you can record more details about your child's headaches, such as frequency, severity of pain and possible triggers.
- Physical exam. The doctor performs a physical exam, including measuring your child's height, weight, head circumference, blood pressure and pulse, and examining your child's eyes, neck, head, shoulders and spine.
Neurological exam. Your doctor checks for any problems with movement, coordination or sensation.
If your child is otherwise healthy and headache is the only symptom, no further testing usually is needed. In a few cases, however, imaging scans and other evaluations can help pinpoint a diagnosis or rule out other medical conditions that could be causing the headaches. These tests may include:
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan. This imaging procedure uses a series of computer-directed X-rays that provide a cross-sectional view of your child's brain. This helps doctors diagnose tumors, infections and other medical problems that can cause headaches.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRIs use a powerful magnet to produce detailed views of the brain. MRI scans help doctors diagnose tumors, strokes, aneurysms, neurological diseases and other brain abnormalities. An MRI can also be used to examine the blood vessels that supply the brain.
- Spinal tap (lumbar puncture). If your doctor suspects an underlying condition, such as bacterial or viral meningitis, is causing your child's headaches, he or she may recommend a spinal tap (lumbar puncture). In this procedure, a thin needle is inserted between two vertebrae in the lower back to extract a sample of cerebrospinal fluid for laboratory analysis.
Usually you can treat your child's headache at home with rest, decreased noise, plenty of fluids, balanced meals and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. If your child is older and has frequent headaches, learning to relax and manage stress through different forms of therapy may help, as well.
OTC pain relievers. Acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) can typically relieve headaches for your child. They should be taken at the first sign of headache.
Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Though aspirin is approved for use in children older than age 2, children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. Aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition, in such children. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.
Prescription medications. Triptans, prescription drugs used to treat migraines, are effective and can be used safely in children older than 6 years of age.
If your child experiences nausea and vomiting with migraines, your doctor may prescribe an anti-nausea drug. The medication strategy differs from child to child, however. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about nausea relief.
Caution: Overuse of medications is itself a contributing factor to headache (rebound headache). Over time, painkillers and other medications may lose their effectiveness. In addition, all medications have side effects. If your child takes medications regularly, including products you buy over-the-counter, discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor.
While stress doesn't appear to cause headaches, it can act as a trigger for headache or make headache worse. Depression and other mental health disorders also can play a role. For these situations, your doctor may recommend one or more behavior therapies, such as:
- Relaxation training. Relaxation techniques include deep breathing, yoga, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation, which is accomplished by tensing one muscle at a time, and then completely releasing the tension, until every muscle in the body is relaxed. An older child can learn relaxation techniques in classes or at home using books or tapes.
- Biofeedback training. Biofeedback teaches your child to control certain body responses that help reduce pain. During a biofeedback session, your child is connected to devices that monitor and give feedback on body functions, such as muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure. Your child then learns how to reduce muscle tension and slow his or her heart rate and breathing. The goal of biofeedback is to help your child enter a relaxed state to better cope with pain.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. This therapy can help your child learn to manage stress and reduce the frequency and severity of headaches. During this type of talk therapy, a counselor helps your child learn ways to view and cope with life events more positively.
OTC pain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), are usually effective in reducing headache pain. Before giving your child pain medication, keep these points in mind:
- Read labels carefully and use only the dosages recommended for your child.
- Don't give doses more frequently than recommended.
- Don't give your child OTC pain medication more than two or three days a week. Daily use can trigger a rebound headache, a type of headache caused by overuse of pain medications.
- Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Though aspirin is approved for use in children older than age 2, children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. This is because aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition, in such children. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.
In addition to OTC pain medications, the following can help ease your child's headache:
- Rest and relaxation. Encourage your child to rest in a dark, quiet room. Sleeping often resolves headaches in children.
- Use a cool, wet compress. While your child rests, place a cool, wet cloth on his or her forehead.
- Offer a healthy snack. If your child hasn't eaten in a while, offer a piece of fruit, whole-wheat crackers or low-fat cheese. Not eating can make headaches worse.
The following may help you prevent headaches or reduce the severity of headaches in children:
- Practice healthy behaviors. Behaviors that promote general good health also may help prevent headaches for your child. These lifestyle measures include getting plenty of sleep, staying physically active, eating healthy meals and snacks, and avoiding caffeine. There's some evidence that being overweight, smoking and getting little physical activity contribute to headaches in adolescents.
- Reduce stress. Stress and busy schedules may increase the frequency of headaches. Be alert for things that may cause stress in your child's life, such as difficulty doing schoolwork or strained relationships with peers. If your child's headaches are linked to anxiety or depression, consider talking to a counselor.
- Keep a headache diary. A diary can help you determine what causes your child's headaches. Note when the headaches start, how long they last and what, if anything, provides relief. Record your child's response to taking any headache medication. Over time, the items you note in the headache diary should help you understand your child's symptoms so that you can take specific preventive measures.
- Avoid headache triggers. Avoid any food or drinks, such as those containing caffeine, that seem to trigger headaches. Your headache diary can help you determine what prompts your child's headaches, so you know what to avoid.
- Follow your doctor's plan. Your doctor may recommend preventive medication if the headaches are severe, occur daily and interfere with your child's normal lifestyle. Certain medications taken at regular intervals — such as certain antidepressants or anti-seizure medications — may reduce the frequency and severity of headaches.