Causes of headaches

In children, headaches can be caused by:

  • infectious illnesses – for example, sinusitis, colds or flu
  • tense muscles because of anxiety, tiredness or teeth-grinding during sleep
  • visual problems – for example, eye strain
  • a head injury
  • migraine
  • medications – for example, oral contraceptives, corticosteroids and antidepressants.

Younger children don’t tend to get tense muscles and migraine, although these problems are the most common causes of headaches in teenagers.

Not drinking enough fluids, not getting enough sleep and too much caffeine can cause headaches or make them worse. This is especially the case with busy, active school-age children in the summer months.

Headaches can also be linked with meningitis, brain tumours or bleeding in the brain, but these illnesses are rare.

Headache symptoms

Some headaches are mild enough for children to continue with their normal activities. But sometimes a headache can make a child feel really sick – your child might even need bed rest.

Pain from a headache can be sharp or dull, on one side of the head, or over the entire head and neck. The headache might feel like a pounding sensation, or just tightness in the muscles.

Migraines in young and adolescent children can have symptoms like throbbing pain on one or both sides, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, and sometimes an ‘aura’ before the headache starts.

A migraine aura affects sight or hearing. Your child might see wavering lights around objects or have ringing in his ears. He might also dislike bright lights and loud noises or want to sleep regardless of the time of day.

When to see your doctor about a headache

You should take your child to the doctor immediately if your child:

  • wakes up because of a headache
  • develops sudden, severe headaches that are most painful when she wakes up, and that come with nausea or vomiting
  • has a headache that keeps coming back
  • has a headache that starts to disrupt her home, school or social life
  • doesn’t get better with the treatments described below.

Your child also needs to see a doctor immediately if he has a headache and any of the following symptoms:

  • high temperature
  • seizures
  • confusion or drowsiness
  • blurred vision
  • unsteadiness when walking
  • stiff neck
  • a head injury including concussion
  • an unusual rash.

Tests related to headache

Common headaches don’t usually need special or specific tests. Your GP will usually be able to make a diagnosis after talking with you and your child and doing a physical examination that includes looking at your child’s nerves, muscles and eyes.

If your GP is concerned that your child’s headache might have a more serious cause, the GP might refer your child to a paediatrician or paediatric neurologist. Very occasionally, your child might need a CT scan or MRI scan.

Treatment for headache

Treatment for uncomplicated headaches usually involves keeping your child quiet – for example, lying down in a darkened room.

You can try massaging the area affected by muscle tension.

Quite often, distracting your child with a quiet game will take her attention away from the pain.

If pain goes on, you can safely give paracetamol according to the directions. Your child shouldn’t need to take pain medication too often. If this happens, you should talk to your GP.

If your child’s headaches seem to be related to stress, try to work out what’s causing your child’s stress. You can then help your child avoid the things that make him feel stressed.

If your child has migraines that keep coming back, your doctor can recommend a plan to prevent and treat migraine headaches.

Don’t give your child aspirin – it can make your child susceptible to Reye’s syndrome, a rare but potentially deadly illness.

Prevention of headache

If you think your child is getting headaches because she isn’t drinking enough fluids, especially in hot weather, try getting her to have an extra glass of water at breakfast and to drink water regularly throughout the day.

Having a good sleep routine in place and avoiding drinks with caffeine like cola, tea and coffee might also help to prevent your child’s headaches.