Whether they're pounding and throbbing or dull and aching, headaches are common in kids. Headaches can have a wide range of causes and many levels of severity. It's important to understand how to recognize when a headache is just a passing pain and when it's something more and requires medical attention.
Headaches are thought to be caused by changes in chemicals, nerves, or blood vessels in the area. These changes send pain messages to the brain and bring on a headache.
In general, kids get the same types of headaches as adults. And headaches often are hereditary, so if a parent gets them, their kids might too.
Some of the many potential headache triggers include:
In some cases, headaches are caused by certain infections, such as:
Most headaches aren't signs that something more is wrong, but occasionally headaches are caused by more serious medical conditions.
When kids get more than the occasional headache, two of the more common kinds they get are tension headaches and migraines.
Fairly common in kids, tension headaches can be brought on by a variety of emotional and physical stressors. The pain is often described as:
A major distinction between tension headaches and migraines is that tension headaches typically are not accompanied by nausea or vomiting, and they're usually not made worse by physical activity — symptoms that do often occur with migraines.
Often triggered by things like stress, sleep deprivation, and menstruation, migraine headaches can cause the following symptoms:
Most migraines last anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours. Some can last as long as a couple of days. Some people with migraines:
Unfortunately, parents of an infant or toddler who are unable to say what hurts may not be able to tell if their little one is having migraines. Young kids with headaches may be cranky, less active, may vomit, or look pale or flushed.
Migraine variants that are thought to happen only to kids and are precursors to the more common migraines of adulthood include paroxysmal vertigo and cyclic vomiting.
Paroxysmal vertigo is described as a sensation of spinning or whirling that comes on suddenly and disappears in a matter of minutes. Kids who experience this may momentarily appear frightened and unsteady, or unable to walk. The vertigo typically goes away by the time a child is 5 years old.
Cyclic vomiting also occurs in young kids and involves repeated episodes of vomiting. The episodes can last for hours or days and are not usually associated with headache. Cyclic vomiting usually goes away by the time kids grow into teens.
When your child has a splitting headache, it's easy to worry. Rest assured, though, that only very rarely are headaches a symptom of something serious. However, you should contact your doctor if your child has unexplained or recurring headaches over a short period of time or on a regular basis.
Call the doctor if your child's headaches:
Also note whether other symptoms accompany the headaches, which can help the doctor identify what might be causing them. Call the doctor if your child also has any of these symptoms:
Your doctor will do a physical exam and get your child's medical history to help discover what might be causing the headaches. Let the doctor know:
To help pin down the problem, doctors often ask parents — and older kids and teens — to keep a headache diary, listing all headaches, when they happen, how long they last, and a few notes about what might have brought them on.
The doctor may do a complete neurological exam including looking in the eyes, testing nerves, and having your child do things like walk or touch his or her nose. A doctor also may order blood tests or imaging tests, such as a CAT scan or MRI of the brain, to look for medical problems that might be causing headaches.
Treatment for your child's headaches will depend on what the doctor determines is the likely cause. But most everyday headaches can be cared for at home with little medical intervention.
To help ease your child's pain, have him or her:
Make sure your child has had something to eat and drink. Kids with migraines may just want to sleep and may feel better when they wake up. A big part of treating migraines is avoiding the triggers that may have caused them. That's where a headache diary can be especially helpful.
You also can give your child an over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Read the label, though, to make sure that you give the right dosage at the right intervals. If you have any questions about how much to give, check with the doctor. And if your child is under age 2 or has other medical problems, call your doctor before giving your little one any pain reliever. Your doctor will be able to tell you whether you should give it and, if so, how much (based on weight and age).
Never give aspirin to kids or teens unless specifically directed to by a doctor. Aspirin can cause Reye syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition.
If your child has chronic migraine headaches, the doctor may prescribe a medication to be taken when the headaches come on or daily as a preventive measure. In deciding whether to put your child on medication, the doctor will consider the frequency of the migraines and discuss the potential benefit of the medication versus its possible side effects.
Discuss pain management with your doctor, who will develop a treatment plan that may include approaches that don't involve medicine, such as relaxation, stress reduction techniques, and avoiding possible triggers.
Tracking your child's headaches and their symptoms and following the doctor's recommendations are the keys to finding relief for painful headaches.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: April 2013
|American Medical Association (AMA) The AMA has made a commitment to medicine by making doctors more accessible to their patients. Contact the AMA at: American Medical Association|
515 N. State St.
Chicago, IL 60610
|American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.|
|National Headache Foundation (NHF) NHF's mission is to serve as an information resource for people who get headaches, their families, and the health care providers who treat them.|
|First Aid: Headaches Headaches are rarely a sign of something serious. Here's what to do if your child has a headache.|
|Migraines: What a Pain! A migraine is a really bad kind of headache. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|How Do Pain Relievers Work? Everybody has pain once in a while, but pain relievers can help. Find out how these medicines work in this article for kids.|
|Lyme Disease Lyme disease can affect the skin, joints, nervous system, and other organ systems. If diagnosed quickly and treated with antibiotics, Lyme disease in kids is almost always treatable.|
|Medications: Using Them Safely Giving kids medicine safely can be a complicated task. With a little knowledge and a lot of double-checking, you can help treat your child's illness while you prevent dangerous reactions.|
|Is it Common to Get Migraines Before Your Period? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|Oooh, Your Aching Head! Lots of kids have headaches from time to time. Find out more about headaches in this article for kids.|
|Ice Cream Headaches That ice cream cone has quickly given you a bad headache, also known as brain freeze. If you want to know more about the pain, read our article for kids.|
|Why Do I Have Pain? When your body is injured in some way, your nerves send messages to your brain about what's going on. Your brain then makes you feel pain. Read our pain-free article for kids.|
|Migraine Headaches If you've ever had a migraine, you know that these headaches can cause severe pain and other symptoms. Read this article to learn about what causes migraines, migraine treatments, and lots more.|
|Caffeine Caffeine has probably helped you through long nights of studying or filling out college applications. But how much do you know about caffeine and its side effects?|
|Headaches Almost everyone gets headaches. So how do you know if a headache is just a passing pain or something more?|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.