Adults aren’t the only ones who get headaches

Article at a Glance

  • It is perfectly normal for children — even babies — to get headaches.
  • Headaches are frequently caused by stress, hunger, lack of sleep, environmental triggers, mild head trauma, physical exertion, a food reaction, or a viral illness.
  • Tension headaches and migraines are the most common types of recurrent headaches.

Her son used to never get headaches, but Angie was now getting a call from the school nurse almost every day. She was worried about Danny missing school and didn’t like the idea of giving him pain medication all the time. So, she made an appointment with her pediatrician.

After conducting a physical exam and asking a few questions, the pediatrician had her keep a headache journal to see if they could identify the triggers. Angie not only made a note of when the headaches occurred and how long they lasted, but also what Danny ate, how much he slept, and what he was doing before a headache started.

Using information he gathered from the physical exam and the headache journal, Danny’s pediatrician concluded that the headaches were probably a result of anxiety. Anxiety made school difficult for Danny, and it was triggering tension headaches.

Over the course of a year, Angie focused on teaching Danny coping strategies like mindfulness, breathing exercises, and relaxation techniques. Because Danny was only in the second grade, it took a while to learn how and when to use his new coping skills — but over time, the headaches improved significantly. She also found that exertion and being out in the heat could make them worse. So, she started to send Danny to school with more water to keep him hydrated during recess. Occasionally, Danny still gets headaches in times of high stress, but his mom is no longer getting daily calls from the school nurse.

Causes of headaches in children

We think about adults getting headaches, but often don’t expect to see them in children. However, it is perfectly normal for kids to get headaches, and they get them for the same reasons adults do.

Headaches are frequently caused by stress, hunger, lack of sleep, environmental triggers, mild head trauma, physical exertion, a food reaction, or a migraine. They can also be caused by a viral illness — resulting from a fever, earache, or nasal congestion. Very rarely, headaches are caused by more serious problems like a brain tumor or bleeding in the brain. Headaches are most common in children with a family history of headaches, older teens, or girls after they have reached puberty.

Treating headaches at home

Children who have only occasional headaches can be treated at home with over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen. Be careful to use pain medications only as directed. Overusing pain medications can lead to rebound headaches, especially when taken with caffeine (commonly found in sodas, chocolate, or over-the-counter migraine medications.) If your child has to take pain medication more than a couple times per week, be sure to talk to your pediatrician. Avoid using aspirin for children or teenagers, as it has been linked to Reye’s Syndrome.

Headaches can also be treated by laying down to rest with a cold compress on the forehead. If your child hasn’t eaten in a while, try offering your child some food or juice. Unless a headache is severe, children can attend school after taking some pain medication or taking a quick rest in the nurse’s office with a cold compress.

When to call your doctor about a headache
Headaches usually aren’t serious; however, you will want to call your pediatrician if your child’s headaches are

  • Accompanied by vomiting or a fever and neck pain.
  • Interfering with your child’s sleep.
  • Increasing in frequency or severity.
  • Causing a change in personality.
  • Resulting from a head injury.
  • Causing vision problems.
  • Lasting longer than three days, or if there are no other symptoms, longer than 24 hours.
  • Interfering with your child’s ability to function at school.

Causes of recurrent headaches

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are the most common type of recurrent headaches. A child with a tension headache may complain of a dull pain on both sides of the forehead or a feeling of tightness around the head or neck. Tension headaches are frequently caused by lack of sleep, anxiety, stress, or staring at a computer screen for too long in one position. Learning how to manage stress can help reduce your child’s tension headaches.

Migraines

Migraines are not as common but can occur in children, teenagers, and even babies. Migraines can be incredibly painful and interrupt your child’s ability to function. A child with a migraine may complain of a throbbing pain that is only on one side that gets worse with exertion or around lights and sound. Your child might also feel nauseous or vomit. Migraines are usually managed by medication, sleep, and identifying and avoiding triggers.

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