There are many different types and causes of headaches in children. Headaches are very common. In fact, between five to eight out of every ten teenagers say they get at least one headache each month. Most headaches are not serious and can be treated easily and effectively. However, occasionally they can indicate something more serious.
The most common types of headaches are tension headaches or migraine headaches (with or without an aura). These headaches are categorised as primary headaches. Secondary headaches are rarer and caused by other conditions such as infections and strokes.
What is a headache?
A headache is any ache or pain that occurs in any region of the head. Anything that stimulates the pain receptors in a person’s head or neck can cause a headache including stress, muscular tension, dental problems, infections, medications, eye problems, dehydration, loud noises and injury.
What is a migraine?
A migraine is a reoccurring headache that is usually more severe than a typical headache and can be accompanied by disturbed vision, sensation, and speech or muscle weakness. These disturbances are called an ‘aura’. Migraines are often associated with nausea and/or vomiting, and sensitivity to light and/or noise. They can affect one or both sides of the head in children.
What age can migraine headaches start?
Migraines often start in childhood or adolescence and may decrease with age or continue through to adulthood. A tendency to experience migraines is often inherited.
How will I know if my child is having a migraine?
It can be hard to identify migraine symptoms if your child is too young to describe them to you. The most obvious signs will be that your child appears to be in pain and may look pale. Other signs and symptoms include nausea and/or vomiting, complaining about a sore tummy, and dizziness. They may also avoid bright light or noise and just want to go to sleep.
What can trigger a migraine?
Some of the most common triggers for migraines in children are:
- missing meals
- not enough sleep
- bright lights (computer screens, fluorescent lights, sunlight)
Tips for managing a migraine
Give a good dose of pain relief early (always consult the product instructions or your general practitioner first if you have any questions). However, avoid giving your child strong painkillers that contain codeine, such as Painstop or Panadeine, because there is no evidence to prove they relieve migraines. Frequent use of these medications can make headaches worse and lead to a ‘medication overuse’ headache. Resting a quiet dark room may reduce the symptoms. Sleep can often help and the migraine may have gone when the child wakes up after a sleep.
The following strategies will also assist:
- maintaining good sleep patterns
- eating regular meals
- drinking lots of water
- managing stress.
When should you seek medical help?
In the first instance, headaches and migraines can be safely treated by your general practitioner or paediatrician. Make an appointment to see your child’s doctor if the headaches:
- do not respond to simple pain relief
- are getting worse (increase in severity and frequency) and disturbing your child’s sleep and daily routine
- are associated with fever, a stiff neck or rash
- are associated with persistent vomiting
- affect their mobility, vision or ability to speak
- cause your child to regularly miss school.
It can be useful to keep a diary or record of the headaches to show your doctor.
Persistent headaches should always be investigated by a doctor. Your paediatrician may also refer your child to a paediatric neurologist to see if there are any underlying causes or health issues.
Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital
501 Stanley Street, South Brisbane
t: 07 3068 1111 (general enquiries)
In an emergency, always call 000.
If it’s not an emergency but you have any concerns, contact 13 Health (13 43 2584). Qualified staff will give you advice on who to talk to and how quickly you should do it. You can phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.