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Neuroscience

Headaches in Children

What is a headache in children?

A headache is pain or discomfort in one or more areas of the head or face. Headaches can happen once in a while. Or they may happen often.

Headaches are often divided into 2 groups, based on what causes them:

  • Primary headaches. These are not linked to another health condition. They are usually caused by tight muscles, widened (dilated) blood vessels, changes in nerve signals, or swelling (inflammation) in parts of the brain.
  • Secondary headaches. These are a less common type of headaches. They are caused by a problem in the brain, or another health condition or disease.

Types of primary headaches include:

  • Tension headache. These are the most common type of headache. Stress and mental or emotional conflict can trigger tension headaches.
  • Migraine. Migraines may start early in childhood. Researchers estimate that nearly 1 in 5 teens has migraine headaches. The average age they can start is 7 years old for boys and 10 years old for girls. There is often a family history of migraines. Some girls may have migraines that happen with their menstrual periods.
  • Cluster headaches. Cluster headaches usually occur in a series that may last weeks or months. This series of headaches may return every 1 to 2 years. These headaches are much rarer than tension headaches or migraines. They can start in children older than age 10. They are more common in teen boys.

What causes headaches in a child?

Researchers don’t fully understand the exact cause of headaches. Many headaches may be caused by tight muscles and widened (dilated) blood vessels in the head. Stress and mental or emotional conflict can trigger tension headaches. Migraine headaches may be caused by changes in brain chemicals or nerve signals.

Other headaches may be caused by a change in pain signals from nerves in the head, face, and neck. Lack of sleep and poor sleep quality are often the cause of chronic headaches. In rarer cases, headaches may be caused by a problem in the brain such as a tumor.

Which children are at risk for headaches?

A child is more at risk for headaches if he or she has any of the following:

  • Stress
  • Poor sleep
  • Head injury
  • Family history of migraines

What are the symptoms of headaches in a child?

Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each child.

Symptoms of tension headaches can include:

  • Pain that starts slowly
  • Head hurting on both sides
  • Pain that is dull
  • Pain that feels like a band around the head
  • Pain in the back part of the head or neck
  • Pain mild to moderate, but not severe
  • Change in the child's sleep habits 

Signs and symptoms of migraines can include:

  • Pre-migraine symptoms (an aura) such as seeing flashing lights, a change in vision, or funny smells
  • Pain on one or both sides of the head
  • Pain that may be throbbing or pounding
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Belly pain discomfort
  • Sweating
  • Child looking pale and being quiet

Symptoms of cluster headaches can include:

  • Severe pain on one side of the head, usually behind one eye
  • The eye that is affected may have a droopy lid, small pupil, or redness and swelling of the eyelid
  • Runny nose or congestion
  • Swelling of the forehead

Symptoms of a secondary headache may include:

  • Headaches that start very early in the morning
  • Pain that is made worse by coughing or sneezing
  • Sudden onset of pain
  • Severe pain
  • Headache that is becoming more severe or continuous
  • Personality changes along with headache
  • Changes in vision
  • Weakness in the arms or legs, or balance problems
  • Seizures or epilepsy
  • Recurrent episodes of vomiting without nausea or other signs of a stomach virus
  • A very young child with a headache
  • A child that is awakened by the pain of a headache

The symptoms of headaches can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How are headaches diagnosed in a child?

The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she may also ask about your family’s health history. He or she will give your child a physical exam. The physical exam may include a neurological exam.

Your child may be asked questions, such as:

  • When do headaches happen?
  • What do they feel like?
  • Where is the pain?
  • How long does the pain last?
  • Do changes in position such as sitting up cause the headache?

You may be asked questions about your child, such as:

  • Does your child have changes in walking?
  • Does your child have changes in behavior or personality?
  • Is your child having trouble sleeping?
  • Does your child have a history of emotional stress?
  • Is there a history of injury to your child's head or face?

Your child may also have tests, such as:

  • Blood tests. These are done to check complete blood count, levels of iron, levels of ferritin, and thyroid function.
  • MRI. This test uses a large magnets and a computer to make detailed images of organs and tissues in the body.
  • CT scan. This test uses X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than standard X-rays.
  • Polysomnogram. This is also called a sleep study. It’s a painless test that is usually done in a sleep lab. Breathing and muscle movements are recorded while your child sleeps. This test may be done to check your child for a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea.

How are headaches treated in a child?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on the type of headache, and how severe the condition is.                                         

The goal of treatment is to stop the headache from occurring. Treatment may include:

  • Resting in a quiet, dark environment
  • Taking medicines recommended by your child's healthcare provider
  • Learning how to manage stress
  • Staying away from foods and drinks that trigger headaches
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Not skipping meals
  • Making changes to his or her diet
  • Getting exercise

Migraine headaches may be treated with medicine, such as:

  • Abortive medicines. These prescription medicines act on specific receptors in blood vessels in the head. They can stop a headache in progress.
  • Rescue medicines. These are over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen that stop a headache.
  • Preventive medicines. These prescription medicines are taken daily to reduce severe migraine headaches.

In some cases, a headache may need medical attention right away. Your child may need to stay overnight in the hospital to be watched. He or she may need testing or surgery.

Talk with your child’s healthcare providers about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects of all treatments.

What are the possible complications of headaches in a child?

Headaches of any type that come back again and again (recurrent) can cause:

  • Behavior problems
  • Problems with grades at school
  • Depression

How can I help prevent headaches in my child?

Headaches in a child may be prevented by things such as:

  • Medicines recommended by your child's healthcare provider
  • Prescription medicine (for migraines)
  • Learning how to manage stress
  • Staying away from foods and drinks that trigger headaches
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Not skipping meals
  • Making changes to his or her diet
  • Getting exercise

When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?

Call the healthcare provider if your child has:

  • Symptoms that don’t get better, or get worse
  • New symptoms

Key points about headaches in a child

  • A headache is pain or discomfort in one or more areas of the head or face. Headaches can happen once in a while. Or they may happen often.
  • Primary headaches are not linked to another health condition. They are usually caused by tight muscles, widened (dilated) blood vessels, changes in nerve signals, or swelling (inflammation) in parts of the brain.
  • Secondary headaches are the least common type of headaches. They are caused by a problem in the brain, or another health condition or disease.
  • In addition to head pain, your child may have nausea or vomiting.
  • Your child may have blood tests, an MRI, a CT scan, or a sleep study to help diagnose a headache.
  • Treatment may include resting, taking medicines, managing stress, getting more sleep, and not having certain foods or drinks.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Trevino, Heather M, BSN, RNC
Online Medical Reviewer: Turley, Raymond Kent, BSN, MSN, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2015
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