We tend to think of headaches as an ailment that affects adults, but they are fairly common in children and adolescents. In fact, there are aged 5 to 17 that are headache-prone. Children get headaches for many of the same reasons adults do, from having the flu to a bout of stress. Although most headaches are not serious, some headaches in childhood can signify a serious health condition, such as bacterial/viral meningitis.
So how can you know when your child’s headaches are normal, or the result of something serious?
Different Types of Headaches
First, it’s important to understand that there are different types of headaches. If your child’s headaches seem to happen regularly, your pediatrician should give them a thorough physical exam and review your entire family’s medical history to figure out what type of headache your child has. Every type of headache may require a different treatment.
These occur as a result of emotional stress and fatigue, causing the muscles in the head and neck to tighten. A child with a tension headache may describe the pain as feeling like there is a tight band around their head.
Congestion headaches are triggered by the common cold and the flu. Pain is typically localized to the area around the eyes and nose, but symptoms subside when the illness is over.
Headaches Following Head Injury
Bumps on the head or head traumas commonly result in headache. A minor bump or scrape on the head is not necessarily cause for immediate concern. However, sometimes headaches following a head injury can last several days or weeks. Prolonged headaches associated with other symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, irritability, anxiety, change in memory or concentration may signal .
Medication Overuse Headache
Also known as an , this occurs when a child takes pain medicine too often (more than twice per week for several weeks.) This type of headache feels dull, persistent, and is usually worse in the morning. These headaches do resolve with pain medication, but return as your medication wears off.
Headaches with Dental Issues
is a less common cause of childhood headaches, but they do happen. Your child may describe pain or discomfort in the jaw, temples, or a clicking sound when they open their mouth. A dental exam should be performed to see if any tooth damage has occurred, and if they need a dental mouthguard to manage their symptoms.
This is the most severe type of headache, causing severe head pain often associated with dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or extreme sensitivity to light, sound, and even smell. It is estimated that between age 5 and 15, and up to 28 percent of teens suffer migraines. Researchers are still uncertain about what exactly causes migraines, but it’s believed to be a blend of genetic and environmental factors.
7 Signs You Should See a Pediatrician For Your Child’s Headaches
If your child is suffering from regular headaches, keep a record of how often they occur along with any noticeable triggers. has a you can print to help you keep track. This information will help your pediatrician determine the best course of treatment for your child.
Make an appointment with a doctor if any of the following apply to your child’s headaches:
- Headaches that occur twice or more a week, or disrupt school or playtime.
- Headaches that wake your child up from sleep.
- Headaches that become worse after lying down.
- Headaches accompanied by pain in the eye or ear, light sensitivity, nausea, or numbness.
- Headaches triggered by coughing, sneezing, running, or following a bowel movement.
- Headaches that occur after a head injury that do not go away after one week.
- Headaches that are recurring and getting worse.
When a Headache is Serious Enough for Urgent Medical Attention
A Fever and a Stiff Neck
If your child’s headache is accompanied by a fever, stiff neck, and is unable to look up, down or shake their head, it could be indicative of meningitis. Call to have one of our providers review their symptoms to determine if an emergency room visit is necessary.
Sudden, Severe Pain Not Eased by Pain Relievers
When your child’s headache is severe and ibuprofen or acetaminophen are not bringing them any relief, to determine if an emergency room visit is necessary. This is especially true if your child is also experiencing double vision, confusion, lethargy, or projectile vomiting.
How To Help Your Child’s Headache
The first step in with a headache is to calmly assess their symptoms. Ask them what exactly the pain feels like and where it is. For example: Is it dull or sharp? All over the head, or just behind the eyes? Ask them if they have any other symptoms besides head pain, such as sensitivity to light/noise, nausea, dizziness, or neck pain.
If your child’s headache is mild and not accompanied by any other concerning symptoms, give them an age-appropriate dose of or . Limit medication to 2 times per week. It’s important not to give medication too often, as it can cause headaches to occur more frequently and severely (also known as analgesic rebound.)
Next, apply either a cold or warm compress to your child’s head. Use a cold, wet washcloth or ice wrapped inside of a washcloth. Ice applied directly to the skin is too cold and can damage the skin. You can also place a warm washcloth (not hot) onto the head. Make sure your child rests somewhere quiet until they start to feel better.
Preventing Recurrent Headaches in Children
To help prevent recurring headaches, make sure that your child:
- Gets 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night
- Exercises regularly
- Drinks 8 to 10 glasses of water or fluid per day
- Knows how to recognize signs of stress
- Feels comfortable speaking out when they feel overwhelmed
- If they are sensitive to certain foods, avoid chocolate, cured meats, aged cheeses, fried foods and caffeine.
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