Headaches aren’t just an adult problem. They’re very common for children and teens. In one study, 56% of boys and 74% of girls between ages 12 and 17 reported having a headache within the past month. Kids generally get the same types of headaches as adults do. By age 15, 5% of all kids have had migraines and 15% have had tension headaches.
You might worry that a child's headache is the sign of a more serious problem, like a brain tumor, but that’s not true for most of kids’ headaches. You can track their symptoms, find treatments, and help your child learn ways to feel better.
What Causes Headaches in Children and Teens?
Most kids get headaches because of an illness, infection, cold, or fever. Other conditions that can cause headaches include sinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses), and infections in their throat or ear.
Migraines are a different story. Doctors don’t know exactly what causes them, although they do know they are related to physical and chemical changes in the brain as well as genes that parents pass to their kids.
About 70% of kids who have migraines have a family member who also has them or did in childhood. They may even have the same migraine triggers that a relative does, such as fatigue, bright lights, and changes in weather.
Other migraine triggers can be stress, anxiety, depression, a change in sleep patterns, loud noises, or some foods. Too much physical activity or too much sun can make a migraine start in some kids, too. Girls can also get them because of hormone changes when they get their periods.
Common causes of tension headaches include stress from school, family, or friends. Other causes include eyestrain and neck or back strain from poor posture or poor vision. Depression may also be a reason your child is having headaches.
While most headaches are harmless, when they get worse over time and happen along with other symptoms such as causing your child to wake during the night, loss of vision, speech problems, vomiting, or muscle weakness, they can be the sign of a more serious problem.
If your child has any of these symptoms with her headache, take her to the doctor right away.
How Are Headaches Diagnosed in Children and Teens?
Once your child gets the right headache diagnosis, she can start a treatment plan that’s most likely to make her feel better.
The first step is to take your child to the doctor. She’ll do a complete physical exam and ask about your child's headache history -- what kind of pain your child has, how often it happens, and if anything makes it better or worse. You and your child will need to describe the symptoms as completely as you can.
Most of the time, a doctor can make a diagnosis from the symptoms you describe, but sometimes your child might get a CT scan or MRI to give the doctor more information. Both of these tests make detailed pictures of the brain that can show any problem areas that could cause headaches.
If your child's symptoms get worse or happen more often even after treatment, ask your child's doctor to refer you to a headache specialist.
How Are Headaches Treated in Children and Teens?
Your doctor may recommend different types of headache treatment, and it can take some time to find one that really works. Keep an open, honest communication with your doctor about what helps your child and what doesn’t.
The best treatment will depend on the type of headache your child has and how often it happens, its cause, and her age. Options may include:
- Track symptoms: Notice and record the things that trigger your child's headache, such as lack of sleep, not eating at regular times, certain foods or ingredients, caffeine, her environment, or stress. Help your child keep a headache diary with this information and avoid the triggers that seem to bring on the problem.
- Stress management: For tension headaches, it’s important for kids and their parents to figure out what causes the problem. Then you can learn ways to deal with the things that are stressing her out.
- Biofeedback: Special equipment uses sensors you connect to your child’s body to monitor how she responds to headaches, such as changes in her breathing, pulse, heart rate, temperature, muscle tension, and brain activity. When she learns to recognize these physical reactions and how her body responds in stressful situations, she can learn how to release and control tension that causes headaches.
- Medications: Many of the drugs that treat adult headaches are OK in smaller doses to treat headaches in children and teens. But you should not give your child aspirin if she’s under age 19. It can cause Reye's syndrome, a rare but fatal condition in young kids. The doctor also may recommend a prescription drug if necessary to help the headaches, especially if they're migraine related.
What Happens After My Child Starts Headache Treatment?
When your child's doctor starts a headache treatment program, keep track of how well it’s working in your child’s headache diary. Keep your child's scheduled follow-up appointments so the doctor can see her progress and make changes in the treatment program if necessary.
Do Children Outgrow Headaches?
Headaches may get better as your child gets older. They may disappear and then return later in life. By middle school, many boys who’ve had migraines outgrow them. But for girls, migraines tend to happen more often as they grow up because of hormone changes.