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Home > Health Library > Headaches in Children
Migraines and tension headaches are common types of headaches in children. These headaches have different symptoms, but they can sometimes be hard to tell apart.
It's important to find out what kind of headache your child has, since the medicines and other treatments may be different. Different things can trigger each kind of headache in different people. Talk to your child's doctor about any headaches your child has.
It isn't clear why some people get migraine headaches and others do not. Migraines often run in families. Experts aren't sure what causes migraines.
The cause of tension headaches also isn't clear. Experts believe there may be more than one cause. In the past, doctors believed that tension or spasms of the muscles of the neck, face, jaw, head, or scalp played a role. Now they think a change in brain chemistry may also cause a tension headache.
Symptoms of migraine headaches include:
Symptoms of tension headaches include:
Some children, especially younger ones, may not always tell you when they feel a headache. So watch for other signs. A headache may cause your child to:
If you notice any signs, find out how your child is feeling. Talk with your child about letting you and other caregivers know as soon as a headache starts.
Your child's doctor will do a physical exam and ask questions, such as how often the headaches occur and what the symptoms are. The doctor will also ask about your child's overall health.
The doctor can rule out other health problems that may be related to the headaches. Other exams and tests are usually recommended only if the doctor finds signs of other health problems.
Headaches aren't usually a sign of something serious. But they can be painful and hard for your child to live with.
Migraines and tension headaches can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers, such as children's acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If this doesn't help stop your child's headaches, or if the headaches happen often, your doctor may prescribe other medicines.
Home treatment, such as managing stress, can also help your child feel better. Your child can help prevent headaches by avoiding things that trigger them.
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It isn't clear why some people get migraines and others do not. Migraines often run in families. Experts aren't sure what causes migraines.
The cause of tension headaches also is not clear. Experts believe there may be more than one cause of tension headaches. In the past, doctors believed that tension or spasms of the muscles of the neck, face, jaw, head, or scalp played a role in causing these headaches. Now they think a change in brain chemistry may also cause a tension headache.
What experts know about the causes of headaches is based on research in adults.
Migraines are intense, throbbing headaches that can be felt on one side or both sides of the head. The pain also can move from one side of the head to the other. Migraines can make it hard for your child to move around or do daily activities.
Other symptoms of migraines include:
Without treatment, your child's migraine headache can last as long as 72 hours.
Tension headaches can last from 30 minutes to as long as several days. For children, these headaches often happen during school or around the time of a stressful event. And they can build up during the day. Symptoms of tension headaches include:
Being sensitive to light or noise (but not both) can sometimes be a symptom of tension headaches. But sensitivity to light and noise is more common with migraines.
Call 911 or other emergency services anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if your child has:
Call the doctor or seek medical care now if your child has:
Watch closely for changes in your child's health. Call the doctor if your child's headaches:
Your child's doctor will do a physical exam and ask questions, such as how often the headaches occur and what the symptoms are. The doctor will ask about your child's overall health.
Migraines and tension headaches can be similar to other kinds of headaches, which may have different treatments. So it's important for your child's doctor to find out what kind of headache your child has. The doctor also can make sure your child doesn't have other health problems that may be related to the headaches.
It's common for parents to feel very concerned about their child's headaches. You may feel that more testing is needed to rule out serious causes. But doctors often can find out the type and the cause of the headaches without using other tests.
In some cases, imaging and other tests may be recommended to rule out other health problems, but this isn't common. These tests include:
Migraines can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers, such as children's acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If this doesn't help stop your child's headaches, or if the headaches occur often, your doctor may prescribe medicines.
Medicines for children's migraines are being researched. Sumatriptan is a medicine doctors sometimes prescribe to treat children's migraines. This medicine has been shown to work well in adults with migraines. More research is being done on the safety of migraine medicines for children.
Have your child take his or her medicines at the first sign of a migraine. This helps stop the headache before it gets worse.
Your doctor also may prescribe medicines to help with nausea.
If your child's migraines are severe, happen often, or interfere with school or other activities, your doctor may prescribe a daily medicine to help prevent them. Have your child take that medicine every day, even if he or she does not have a headache.
Tension headaches can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers, such as children's acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
If your child's headaches are severe, happen often, or interfere with school or other activities, your doctor may prescribe a daily medicine to help prevent them. Have your child take the medicine every day, even if he or she does not have a headache.
Be careful about giving over-the-counter pain relievers often. Over time, this can make your child's headaches happen more often or get worse. Ask your doctor how often your child should take these medicines.
Here are some other important safety tips:
Learn more about giving over-the-counter medicines to children.
Home treatment can help relieve your child's headaches. It also can help reduce how often the headaches occur.
When your child has a headache, be sure to give comfort and support. Headaches can be painful and upsetting. Easing stress or anxiety about the headaches is important for helping your child feel better.
Your child may feel stress about missing school or having less time with friends because of the headaches. Talk about any fears or concerns he or she might have.
Tell your child's doctor about any headaches your child has. The doctor can help you know what type of headache it is so you can choose the best treatment. It may help to find a doctor who has experience treating headaches in children.
Keep a headache diary . A headache diary can help you find a link between your child's headaches and the things that trigger them. Help your child write down when each headache starts, how long it lasts, where it hurts, and what the pain is like (throbbing, aching, stabbing, or dull).
The doctor can help make a treatment plan that your child can follow at home and at school. Tell your child's teachers and other caregivers about the treatment plan. Be sure to discuss any headache medicines your child takes. Encourage your child to always let caregivers know when a headache starts.
To treat migraines or tension headaches at home:
Tell your child's doctor about any new symptoms that occur with a headache, such as a fever, weakness or numbness, vision changes, or confusion. These may be signs of a more serious problem.
Ask your doctor about other treatments that may help your child's headaches, such as biofeedback, counseling, or relaxation exercises. For more information about relaxation exercises, see:
Triggers are things that can cause your child to have headaches. Your child may be able to prevent headaches by avoiding the triggers.
Some things may trigger migraines or tension headaches, including:
Children may feel stress from schoolwork, sports, social events, a poor self-image, or problems with friends. These pressures can lead to headaches in some children. Talk to your child about what might be causing stress. You can help find ways to cope with the stress, which may help prevent the headaches.
Talk to the doctor if you think your child may be depressed or anxious. Treating these problems may reduce the number of headaches your child has.
Other migraine triggers include:
Other tension headache triggers include:
Keeping a headache diary helps you find a link between your child's headaches and the things that trigger them. Help your child write down when each headache starts, how long it lasts, where it hurts, and what the pain is like (throbbing, aching, stabbing, or dull).
Write down any other symptoms your child has with the headache, such as nausea or being sensitive to bright light or noise. List anything you think might have triggered the headache.
Remember that it might take up to 24 hours for some triggers to cause a headache. Other triggers can lead to a headache right away.
Show the headache diary to your child's doctor at each visit. The doctor can help you and your child figure out what the triggers are. When you know your child's triggers, you can help your child avoid those things.
To prevent migraines and tension headaches:
Other Works Consulted
Hershey AD (2011). Headaches. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 2039–2046. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Kedia S, et al. (2014). Neurologic and muscular disorders. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 21st ed., pp. 776–861. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Current as of:
April 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Kathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineJohn Pope MD - PediatricsAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineMartin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Current as of: April 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & John Pope MD - Pediatrics & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
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