Your child has a headache. Are they sick? Are they dehydrated? Or is the cause of their headache something more serious? Is now the time to worry?
Whenever children get headaches, it’s natural to think of worst-case scenarios. Many parents worry that their child’s headache is a sign of a brain tumor or serious medical condition.
The good news is that most headaches experienced by children and adolescents (teens) are not serious.
“The most likely cause of headaches in children is due to poor lifestyle choices and not due to something in the brain,” said Tamara Zach, MD, a pediatric neurologist with Banner Children’s in Phoenix, AZ.
Read on to understand the common causes and types of headaches in children, how to treat them and when you should contact your child’s health care provider.
Causes of headaches
A headache is a pain in your child’s face or head. Apart from the pain, headaches can disrupt your child’s daily routine and ability to pay attention at school or during activities.
Lifestyle, environmental, physical or psychological factors are among the many causes of kids’ headaches.
These factors include:
- Lack of sleep
- Eating late at night and/or skipping meals
- Not drinking enough water
- Lack of exercise
- Eye strain and poor posture, typically from heavy use of electronics
- Certain medications
- Too much caffeine use
- Hormone changes (puberty)
Types of headaches
Headaches are often divided into two groups based on what causes them:
Primary headaches: These are the most common types of headaches. They aren’t linked to another health condition but are caused by a problem or overactivity of the pain-sensitive parts of the head.
The three most common primary headaches are:
- Tension headache. This is the most common in children (4% in children under age 7 and 15% to 25% in teens) that causes mild to moderate pain.
- Migraine headaches (with or without aura). This is the second most common. It causes severe headaches that can last hours or days and often include pain, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound and dizziness. There is usually a family history of migraines.
- Cluster headache. This isn’t as common, but it usually starts in children older than 10 years old and is more common in male teens. It causes frequent painful headaches that happen at least three months in a row.
Secondary headaches: These are due to a problem in the structure of the brain as a result of a health condition or disease. “This can include chronic illness, seizures or side effects from medications that someone is taking for their illness and brain disorders,” Dr. Zach said.
When should I be concerned about my child’s headaches?
“If headaches wake your child up from sleep in the morning or middle of the night, this is a red flag to call your child’s provider,” Dr. Zach said.
Other symptoms that may suggest a more serious cause of your child’s headaches may include the following:
- Any weakness, tingling or numbness in their limbs (arms, legs, hands and feet)
- Frequent headaches (more than two a week)
- Changes in vision or vision loss
- Frequent vomiting, especially in the morning
- Seizures or epilepsy
- Headache after a head injury that involved a loss of consciousness
How can you treat a child’s headache at home?
If your child has a headache but no other worrying symptoms, you can usually manage the headaches at home.
You should ensure your child:
- Rests (a cold, dark room is nice)
- Drinks plenty of water, plus electrolytes
- Eats regular meals on a consistent schedule (no skipping)
- Avoids foods that trigger migraines
- Sticks to a regular bedtime routine
- Takes deep, relaxing breaths
- Takes an OTC (over-the-counter) medication or pain reliever, if needed. However, children and teens should avoid taking aspirin. In rare cases, it can cause Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious disease that can cause brain and liver damage.
“If headaches are more than two to three times every day, giving OTC medications can turn into medication overuse headaches,” Dr. Zach said. “Taking too much can cause problems. So, keep track of how often the headaches are, and don’t give too many OTC medications.”
Ways you can help prevent headaches
Preventing many headaches in children comes down to changing the lifestyle factors that caused the headaches in the first place.
“Make sure your child gets regular sleep, eats three meals per day, avoids heavy meals after 8 p.m. and drinks about half of their body weight in ounces of water,” Dr. Zach said. “If your child is active, add electrolytes to their water. This should prevent most of the headaches children deal with.”
If your child is dealing with stress and/or anxiety, use calming techniques, journaling, and turn off electronics one to two hours before they fall asleep. A licensed behavioral health specialist can help your child with emotional and physical stress and anxiety.
Both adults and children can experience headaches with mild to moderate pain. For some, however, the pain can be severe.
Most causes of headaches can be resolved at home, but other reasons may require medical attention. Treatment for your child’s headaches will depend on the cause and possible underlying condition. They may be referred to a pediatric neurologist or another specialist for further testing.