Figures from Migraine & Headache Australia show that headache is a common symptom in children and adolescents, and that the prevalence of headaches in children increases from preschool age (3-8%) to mid-adolescence (57-82%).i
Headaches in children could be symptomatic of other conditions, like a toothacheii, coldiii, or ear infectioniii, but they can also be triggered by emotional upset (i.e. stressiii), so it can be useful to recognise what is causing your child’s headache and how you can help. Knowing the causes of headaches in children, different types of headache and how to treat them is the first step towards finding welcome relief from headache pain.
What are tension headaches?
Tension headaches can manifest differently in each child and are one of the most common types of headaches.iv
Stress and emotional upset are often the trigger of tension headaches, though researchers aren’t fully sure what the main cause is. Usually, tension headaches come on slowly, and the pain tends to feel dull and may affect both sides and/or the back of the head.iv They can also affect your child’s sleeping habits.iv
This kind of headache can start early in childhood, and your child is more at risk if you have a family history of migraines.v An estimated 10% of school-age children are said to suffer migraines, and around half of these will have had an attack by the age of 12.v
Your child may have a migraine if they have the following symptoms:iv
- Seeing flashing lights
- Experiencing a change in vision or strange smells
- Pain on one or both sides of their head
- Throbbing or pounding pain
- Sensitivity to light or sound
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain or discomfort
- Sweating and pale-looking skin
- Being quieter than usual
Cluster headaches – which are much rarer than tension headaches or migraines – can occur in children over the age of 10.iv Teen boys are more likely to experience them.iv As the name suggests, this type of headache occurs in the form of a ‘cluster’ of attacks – lasting from weeks to months.iv
Symptoms of cluster headaches in children can include:iv
- Severe pain on one side of the head, usually 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
- Swelling of the forehead
As soon as your child complains of a headache, there are some steps you can take at home to help reduce the pain and associated symptoms.
- Make sure they’re hydrated, well-rested, and eating a balanced diet – treating an occasional headache can be as simple as giving your child something to eat and drink, and time to lie down and rest.iii To help prevent headaches in the future, ensure your child has a balanced diet – that means plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean meats and dairy products (or alternatives) – and limit processed foods that are high in fats and sugars.iii
- Use a cool compress – applying a moist, cool cloth on their forehead may provide some relief.iii You could also massage their head and neck muscles.iii
- Use age-appropriate over-the-counter pain relief – if you think your child needs pain relief, you can administer some non-prescription pain medicine to help manage their headache symptoms.iii Paracetamol such as Children’s Panadol Colour-Free Suspension 1-5 Years and Childen’s Panadol Elixir 5-12 Years are appropriate for younger children. Children’s Panadol Colour-Free Baby Drops 1 month - 2 Years is suitable for children from 1 month old and is available in liquid form.
If your child is suffering an increasing number of headaches, keep a diary of when they happen and how long they last, and try to pinpoint any triggers, such as foods, sleep deprivation, stress, exercise or dehydration.iii That way you’ll have a more detailed history to discuss with your doctor.iii
Find out more about how to treat fever in children.
Some symptoms may suggest a more serious underlying cause that requires immediate medical attention. Your child should see the GP if:iii
- Their headaches are getting worse
- They are having a headache more than once a week
- The headache wakes your child from sleep or the headache is worse in the morning
- The headache is associated with vision changes, vomiting or high fevers
- The headaches begin to disrupt your child’s school, home or social life
- You identify that stress is causing your child’s headaches but cannot manage it without further help
Research suggests that making sure your child gets enough sleep and practises sleep hygiene can help manage headaches.vi Dehydration can bring on a headache, so make sure they drink enough water and eat a balanced diet.vii Headaches can be uncomfortable for kids, but they can usually be effectively managed at home. If your child’s headache doesn’t respond to this initial line of treatment, or the headaches seem to be happening more often or getting worse, it’s a good idea to see your doctor.viii