A headache is pain or discomfort in one or more areas of the head or face. Headaches can happen once in a while. Or they may happen often.
Headaches are often divided into 2 groups, based on what causes them:
Primary headaches. These are not linked to another health condition. They are often caused by tight muscles or changes in blood vessels or nerve signals.
Secondary headaches. These are a less common type of headache. They are caused by a problem in the brain, or another health condition or disease. These are much less common but include infections, bleeding, and tumors of the brain.
Types of primary headaches include:
Tension headache. These are the most common type of headache. Stress and mental or emotional conflict can trigger tension headaches.
Migraine. Migraines may start early in childhood. Researchers estimate that nearly 1 in 5 teens has migraine headaches. The average age they can start is 7 years old for boys and 10 years old for girls. There is often a family history of migraines. Some girls may have migraines that happen with their menstrual periods.
Cluster headaches. Cluster headaches often occur in a series that may last weeks or months. This series of headaches may return every 1 to 2 years. These headaches are much rarer than tension headaches or migraines. They can start in children older than age 10. They are more common in teen boys.
Researchers don’t fully understand the exact cause of headaches. Many headaches may be caused by tight muscles and widened (dilated) blood vessels in the head. Stress and mental or emotional conflict can trigger tension headaches. Migraine headaches may be caused by changes in brain chemicals or nerve signals.
Other headaches may be caused by a change in pain signals from nerves in the head, face, and neck. Lack of sleep and poor sleep quality are often the cause of chronic headaches. In rarer cases, headaches may be caused by a problem in the brain such as a tumor.
A child is more at risk for headaches if they have any of these:
Family history of migraines
Symptoms can be different for each child.
Symptoms of tension headaches can include:
Pain that starts slowly
Head hurting on both sides
Pain that is dull
Pain that feels like a band around the head
Pain in the back part of the head or neck
Pain mild to moderate, but not severe
Change in the child's sleep habits
Signs and symptoms of migraines can include:
Premigraine symptoms (an aura) such as seeing flashing lights, a change in vision, or funny smells
Pain on one or both sides of the head
Pain that may be throbbing or pounding
Sensitivity to light or sound
Nausea and vomiting
Belly pain discomfort
Child looking pale and being quiet
Ophthalmoplegic migraine is less common but can cause double vision, droopy eyelid, or other eye problems. These are often signs of secondary headaches, so other health problems need to be ruled out first.
Symptoms of cluster headaches can include:
Severe pain on one side of the head, often behind one eye
The eye that is affected may have a droopy lid, small pupil, or redness and swelling of the eyelid
Runny nose or congestion
Symptoms of a secondary headache may include:
Headaches that start very early in the morning
Pain that's made worse by coughing or sneezing
Sudden onset of pain
Headache that's becoming more severe or continuous
Personality changes along with headache
Changes in vision
Weakness in the arms or legs, or balance problems
Seizures or epilepsy
Repeated vomiting without nausea or other signs of a stomach virus
A very young child with a headache
A child that is awakened by the pain of a headache
Some of these symptoms may be caused by other health problems. Have your child see their healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. They may also ask about your family’s health history. They will give your child a physical exam. The physical exam may include a neurological exam.
Your child may be asked questions, such as:
When do headaches happen?
What do they feel like?
Where is the pain?
How long does the pain last?
Do changes in position such as sitting up or other activities cause the headache?
You may be asked questions about your child, such as:
Does your child have changes in walking?
Does your child have changes in behavior or personality?
Is your child having trouble sleeping?
Does your child have a history of emotional stress?
Is there a history of injury to your child's head or face?
If a more serious condition is suspected ,your child may also have tests, such as:
MRI. This test uses large magnets and a computer to make detailed images of organs and tissues in the body. It does not use X-rays.
CT scan. This test uses X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than standard X-rays.
Spinal tap (lumbar puncture). This test measures cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) pressure. It may also be used to check for an infection in the CSF.
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on what type of headache your child has and how severe it is.
The goal of treatment is to stop the headache from occurring. Treatment may include:
Resting in a quiet, dark environment
Taking medicines advised by your child's healthcare provider
Learning how to manage stress
Staying away from foods and drinks that trigger headaches
Getting enough sleep
Not skipping meals
Making changes to your child's diet
Migraine headaches may be treated with medicine, such as:
Abortive medicines. These prescription medicines act on specific receptors in blood vessels in the head. They can stop a headache in progress.
Rescue medicines. These are over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen that stop a headache.
Preventive medicines. These prescription medicines are taken daily to reduce severe migraine headaches.
In some cases, a headache may need medical care right away. Your child may need to stay overnight in the hospital to be watched. They may need testing or surgery.
Talk with your child’s healthcare providers about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects of all treatments.
Headaches of any type that come back again and again (recurrent) can cause:
Problems with grades at school
Headaches in a child may be prevented by things such as:
Staying away from foods and drinks that trigger headaches
Call the healthcare provider if your child has:
Symptoms that don’t get better, or get worse
A headache is pain or discomfort in 1 or more areas of the head or face. Headaches can happen once in a while. Or they may happen often.
Primary headaches are not linked to another health condition. They are often caused by tight muscles, widened (dilated) blood vessels, changes in nerve signals, or swelling (inflammation) in parts of the brain.
Secondary headaches are the least common type of headaches. They are caused by a problem in the brain, or another health condition or disease.
In addition to head pain, your child may have nausea or vomiting.
Your child may have an MRI or a CT scan to help diagnose what may be causing a headache.
Treatment may include resting, taking medicines, managing stress, getting more sleep, and not having certain foods or drinks.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.