Overview

Headaches in children are common and usually aren't serious. Like adults, children can develop different types of headaches, including migraine 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 pain medications and other lifestyle measures.

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

Prevention

The following may help you prevent headaches or reduce the severity of headaches in children:

  • Practice healthy behaviors. Behaviors that promote general good health also may help prevent headaches for your child. These lifestyle measures include getting plenty of sleep, staying physically active, eating healthy meals and snacks, drinking four to eight glasses of water daily, and avoiding caffeine.
  • Reduce stress. Stress and busy schedules may increase the frequency of headaches. Be alert for things that may cause stress in your child's life, such as difficulty doing schoolwork or strained relationships with peers. If your child's headaches are linked to anxiety or depression, consider talking to a counselor.
  • 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.

  • Avoid headache triggers. Avoid any food or drinks, such as those containing caffeine, that seem to trigger headaches. Your headache diary can help you determine what prompts your child's headaches, so you know what to avoid.
  • Follow your doctor's plan. Your doctor may recommend preventive medication if the headaches are severe, occur daily and interfere with your child's normal lifestyle. Certain medications taken at regular intervals — such as certain antidepressants or anti-seizure medications — may reduce the frequency and severity of headaches.