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Pediatric Headaches

Headaches in children are common and can become more frequent or severe through adolescence. In fact, migraines affect up to 15 percent of high school children, up to 11 percent of elementary school children and roughly 3 percent of preschool children, according to the Cleveland Clinic. For some children, migraines or other headaches occur frequently, which can impact their day-to-day life.

Headache Symptoms in Children

Common types of headaches in children include migraines and tension headaches.

Migraines can cause the following symptoms:

  • Moderate-to-severe throbbing pain, usually on one side of the head
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Increased sensitivity to bright lights or loud noises
  • Worsening of the headache with regular physical activity such as walking

Tension headaches can cause the following symptoms:

  • Mild pain that usually affects both sides and does not get worse with exertion
  • No nausea, minimal sensitivity to bright lights or loud noises
  • Tight muscles in the neck or head

Headaches in Children vs. Adults

While headache symptoms in children can be similar to what adults experience, there are some notable differences in the following:

  • Location: Children often have headaches that occur in the front part of their head rather than on one side or in the back of their head.
  • Length: Children might have headaches that only last for a couple of hours or less, while adults commonly have headaches that last hours to days.
  • Frequency: Two out of every 100 children suffer from chronic migraine and migraine worsens into adolescence. Over 4 million adults suffer from chronic migraine.

Diagnostic Challenges for Headaches in Children

Diagnosing headaches involves gathering information from children on their symptoms, such as how severe they are or how often they occur. This information can prove difficult to get from children, especially younger ones. According to the National Headache Foundation, up to 4 percent of children experience a headache for the first time before they start elementary school. These children are often too young to provide detailed information on their symptoms.

Parents typically need to obtain this information by taking a more creative approach to asking children about their symptoms. For example, this might involve avoiding direct questions that can be confusing and asking children to point to where their head hurts or say how bad their head hurts on a scale of one to ten. Parents generally need to gather information in younger children by observing them as well. Younger children with migraines or other headaches might look for a quiet place for resting. They might also become more irritable than usual or exhibit other behavioral changes, such as talking less or not playing.

Treatment for Headaches in Children

Treatment options for headaches in children depend on different factors, such as their age, the severity of their headaches, and whether or not they have any other health issues. Some children are able to take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers to ease headache pain, while others might need a prescription medication.

Home remedies for headaches usually involve having children rest in a quiet area and making sure they eat on a regular basis, because hunger and dehydration are strong triggers for some children.

While headaches in children are common, parents should seek medical care when frequent or severe headaches occur. Discovering the underlying cause of these headaches can help determine an effective type of treatment that provides your child with relief from this discomfort. Keep track of symptoms, pain, dates, timing, and more using a headache tracker to help diagnose the cause when visiting your doctor.


For more information on The Will Erwin Headache Research Center click here.

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