Headaches aren’t just for adults. About 1 in 5 school-age children and teens are prone to having them, too. The most common type of headache in kids are tension headaches. But about 5% of children struggle with migraine headaches -- some as early as 4 years old.
You might worry that your child's headache is a sign of a more serious problem, like a brain tumor. But that’s untrue for most childhood headaches. Put your worries to rest by tracking your child’s symptoms and talking to their doctor. Together, you can find treatments and help your child learn ways to feel better.
What Causes Headaches in Children and Teens?
Most kids get them because of an illness, infection (like a cold), or a fever. For example, sinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses) and infections of the throat or ear can trigger headaches.
Migraine headaches are a different story. Doctors don’t know exactly what causes them, but they do know they’re linked to physical and chemical changes in the brain, as well as genes that parents pass to their kids.
About 7 out of 10 kids who have migraine have a mom, dad, or sibling with a history of them. Similar things -- like fatigue, bright lights, and changes in weather -- might even trigger their attacks.
Other migraine triggers include stress, anxiety, depression, a change in sleep patterns, loud noises, or certain foods. Too much physical activity or too much sun can bring on a migraine in some kids, too. Girls can get them because of hormone changes when they get their periods. This type of headache is called a menstrual migraine.
Common causes of tension headaches include emotional stress, eyestrain due to poor vision, and neck or back strain linked to poor posture.
Most headaches are harmless. But if they get worse over time and happen with certain other symptoms, they can be a sign of a more serious problem.
When to Call Your Doctor
See a doctor if your child’s headache comes back, gets worse, or lasts more than 12 hours. They should also go to the doctor if the headache follows a head injury or if you just feel like your child doesn’t look well.
Take your child to a doctor right away if they have any of these symptoms along with a headache:
- Loss of vision
- Muscle weakness
- Stiff neck
- Any symptoms that wake them during the night
- In young children, pain in the back of the head
Call 911 if you can't wake your child; if they have slurred speech, confusion, weakness in their limbs, or trouble walking; or if the headache is the worst they’ve ever had.
Your child’s doctor will examine them and ask questions about the headaches, including the type of pain, how often they happen, and if anything makes them better or worse. You and your child will need to be as specific as possible.
Usually, the doctor can make a diagnosis based on this information. Sometimes, they need a CT scan or MRI to get more information. These imaging tests make detailed pictures of the brain that can show any problem areas that could cause headaches.
Once your doctor determines the specific type of headache your child is having, you can work together on a treatment plan to help them feel better.
If your child’s headaches aren’t happening with any other symptoms, you may want to try some home remedies or over-the-counter pain relievers first.
For tension headaches, these tips might help:
- Have your child lie down with their head raised slightly.
- Give them a hot bath or shower.
- Put a cold or warm compress on their forehead or neck.
For a migraine:
- Lie down in a quiet, dark room and relax. Close the curtains, and keep the noise down.
- Have the child take deep, calming breaths.
- Use a cold or warm compress.
A single dose of over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen may ease the pain of both tension and migraine headaches. Experts recommend giving these painkillers to your child as soon as a migraine starts. Don’t give it more than 2 days in a week; it could lead to rebound headaches.
You might prefer to try natural headache remedies. Studies suggest that certain vitamins or herbs may help reduce the pain or frequency of headaches. They include:
Vitamin B2. Also called riboflavin, this supplement may prevent some headaches. Side effects are rare but include diarrhea, having to pee more than usual, and brighter yellow urine.
Magnesium. Teens who have migraine headaches have lower levels of magnesium. Taking this nutrient for several months may prevent some of these headaches. Magnesium supplements can cause diarrhea and interfere with some medications, so you should check with your child’s doctor before using it. You can help boost your child’s magnesium levels by adding more dark green, leafy vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, and whole grains to their diet.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). About one-third of kids with migraine are lacking in this antioxidant, which is normally found in every cell in the body. There are no significant side effects in kids. Mild gastrointestinal upset may occur, but it’s rare.
Always ask a pediatrician if a specific supplement is safe for your child before using it.
How Do Doctors Treat Headaches in Children and Teens?
Your doctor may recommend different headache treatments. The best one for your child will depend on the type of headache they have, how often it happens, what causes it, and their age.
Some of the options your doctor might suggest include:
Tracking symptoms. Keep a headache diary to note the things that trigger your child's headache, like a lack of sleep, not eating at regular times, certain foods or ingredients, caffeine, the environment, or stress.
Stress management. For both migraine and tension-type headaches, it’s important for you and your child to figure out what causes them. Then you can help them find ways to deal with the things that are stressing them out.
Biofeedback. Special sensors attached to the body track how your child responds to headaches. The sensors record changes in breathing, pulse, heart rate, temperature, muscle tension, and brain activity. This helps your child understand how their body physically responds to stressful situations. It can help them learn how to release and control tension that leads to headaches.
Massage. When done by a trained professional, along with a healthy diet and regular exercise, massage can help your child relax. It can ease muscle tension that may trigger headaches.
Medications. Many of the medicines that treat adult headaches are fine in smaller doses to treat headaches in children and teens. But never give aspirin to a child under age 19. It can cause Reye's syndrome, a rare but fatal condition in young kids. Your child may need prescription medications to help certain headaches, especially migraine headaches. Some meds treat symptoms when they strike. Others help prevent future headaches.
It can take some time to find a headache treatment that works. Tell your doctor what helps your child and what doesn’t.
What to Expect When Treatment Starts
Right away, start keeping a headache diary to help you track how well medication and therapy are working. Bring the diary to your child's follow-up appointments so the doctor can check it and tweak the treatment program, if necessary.
If your child's symptoms get worse or happen more often even with treatment, ask the doctor to refer you to a headache specialist.
Do Children Outgrow Headaches?
They may get better as your child gets older. They might disappear and then return later in life. By middle school, many boys who’ve had migraine headaches outgrow them. But for girls, the headaches tend to happen more often as they grow because of hormone changes.