Children and teenagers often get headaches.
Headaches can be primary headaches or secondary headaches.
Primary headaches are when the head pain itself is the main problem. Primary headaches include:
- tension headaches, which can be triggered by stress and lack of sleep
- migraines, which can run in families.
Secondary headaches are when the head pain is a symptom of another condition like a viral infection, eye strain, dehydration or a head injury. More rarely, it might be from a tumour, meningitis or bleeding inside the skull.
The key symptom of headaches is head pain and discomfort.
Tension headaches often involve a dull ache on both sides or around the head. Your child might also get sore muscles in their neck. The pain from tension headaches can be constant and last for weeks at a time.
Migraines usually involve a throbbing pain on one side of the head or behind the eye. Your child might get other symptoms including nausea, vomiting, dizziness and sensitivity to light or sound. Some children with migraine might also get an ‘aura’ before the head pain starts. With aura, your child might see flashes of light or feel tingling in one side of their body.
For other types of headaches including secondary headaches, the type, location and duration of the pain and discomfort might vary depending on what’s causing the headache.
Does your child need to see a doctor about a headache?
Sometimes. You should seek medical advice immediately if your child:
- wakes up because of a headache
- develops sudden, severe headaches that hurt most when they wake up, and that come with nausea or vomiting
- has a headache that keeps coming back
- has a headache that starts to disrupt their home, school or social life.
Your child also needs immediate medical attention if they have a headache and any of the following symptoms:
- confusion or drowsiness
- blurred vision
- unsteadiness when walking
- weakness down one side of the body
- a drooping face
- stiff neck
- a head injury including concussion
- an unusual rash.
You know your child best, so trust your instincts if your child doesn’t seem well. If your child is showing signs of a serious illness, go straight to a hospital emergency department or dial 000 for an ambulance.
Tests for headache
Headaches don’t usually need tests. Your GP will usually be able to make a diagnosis after talking with you and your child and doing a physical examination. This might include measuring your child’s blood pressure and looking at your child’s nerves, muscles and eyes.
Treatment for headache
If your child has a headache, encourage them to drink plenty of water. Resting or lying in a dark room or having a sleep can also help.
If your child’s headache is making them very uncomfortable, you can give your child paracetamol or ibuprofen according to the directions. Your child shouldn’t need to take pain medication too often. If this happens, you should talk to your GP.
Treatment can also depend on the type and underlying cause of the headache. Your doctor will help you manage underlying causes with medication and other advice.
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
Your child might be able to prevent headaches by:
- drinking plenty of water to avoid getting dehydrated
- having regular meals and regular exercise
- avoiding caffeinated drinks like cola, tea, coffee and energy drinks
- getting a good night’s sleep, going to bed and getting up at regular times and limiting distractions like screens in the bedroom
- managing stress.