Headaches in children are common and usually aren't serious. Like adults, children can develop different types of headaches, including migraines 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 (OTC) pain medications and healthy habits such as a regular schedule for sleeping and eating.
Children get the same types of headaches adults do, but their symptoms may be a little different. For example, migraine pain in adults often lasts at least four hours — but in children, the pain may not last as long.
Differences in symptoms 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 into certain categories.
Migraines can cause:
Even infants can have migraines. A child who's too young to tell you what's wrong may cry or rock back and forth to indicate severe pain.
Tension-type headaches can cause:
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 10 years of age. They usually:
Doctors use the phrase "chronic daily headache" (CDH) for migraines and tension-type headaches that occur more than 15 days a month. CDH may be caused by an infection, minor head injury or taking pain medications — even nonprescription pain medications — too often.
Most headaches aren't serious, but seek prompt medical care if your child's headaches:
Talk to your child's doctor if you're worried or have questions about your child's headaches.
A number of factors can cause your child to develop headaches. Factors include:
Any child can develop headaches, but they're more common in:
The following may help you prevent headaches or reduce the severity of headaches in children:
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.
To learn about the nature of your child's headache, your doctor will likely look to:
If your child is otherwise healthy and headaches are 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:
Usually you can treat your child's headache at home with rest, decreased noise, plenty of fluids, balanced meals and 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 or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) can typically relieve headaches for your child. They should be taken at the first sign of a headache.
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 headaches (medication overuse 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 OTC products, discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor.
While stress doesn't appear to cause headaches, it can act as a trigger for headaches or make a headache worse. Depression also can play a role. For these situations, your doctor may recommend one or more behavior therapies, such as:
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.
OTC pain medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), are usually effective in reducing headache pain. Before giving your child pain medication, keep these points in mind:
In addition to OTC pain medications, the following can help ease your child's headache:
Although they haven't been well studied, a number of dietary supplements have been suggested to help children's headaches, including:
Check with your child's doctor before trying any herbal products or dietary supplements to be sure they won't interact with your child's medicine or have harmful side effects.
Several alternative treatments may also be helpful for headaches in children, including:
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.
For headaches in children, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:
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 OTC pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) to ease symptoms.
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.