Symptoms and causes

Symptoms

Children get the same types of headaches adults do, but their symptoms may differ. For example, migraine pain in children may last less than four hours, whereas in adults, migraines last at least four hours.

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 under certain categories.

Migraine

Migraines can cause:

  • Pulsating, throbbing or pounding head pain
  • Pain that worsens with exertion
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • 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 headache

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 headache

Cluster headaches are uncommon in children under 10 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 less than 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. 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
  • Feature persistent vomiting or visual changes
  • Are accompanied by fever and neck pain or stiffness

Causes

A number of factors can cause your child to develop headaches. Factors include:

  • Illness and infection. Common illnesses such as colds, flu, and ear and sinus infections are some of the most frequent causes of headaches in children. More-serious infections, such as meningitis or encephalitis, also can cause headaches, 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.

Risk factors

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
  • Older teens