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Headaches in children are common and are usually not serious. There are many causes for headaches, including family history factors, emotional factors, and environmental factors.
Children can develop several types of headaches, including migraines, stress-related (tension) headaches, or chronic daily headaches. These headaches may produce different symptoms.
Migraine headaches: Both children and adults can have migraine headaches, but symptoms in children may be different than in adults. For example, in adults a migraine headache is usually on one side of the head, but in a child a migraine can affect both sides of the head. Migraines can cause head pain, nausea or vomiting, abdominal pain, and sensitivity to light or sound.
Tension headaches: Tension headaches are often associated with stress. The headache is often described as a feeling of tightness or pressing on the head.
Chronic daily headaches: Both migraines and tension-type headaches can begin happening more frequently over time. Headaches can also occur more often if too much pain medication is used.
Many pediatricians can diagnose headaches by taking a careful history of the symptoms and doing a physical examination. It can be challenging for young children to describe what kind of headache he or she has. Some pediatricians ask children to draw a picture of the headache to help understand what type of headache it is.
If your child's headache symptoms seem unusual for him or her or if the symptoms become worse or happen more often, it is important to see a doctor. You should take your child to a doctor if your child's headache occurs after an injury such as hitting his or her head, if it includes vomiting or visual changes, or if symptoms include fever or neck pain.
Medications often include pain medications; these are available over the counter (such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen) or by prescription. It is important to give the correct dose to your child—call the doctor if you are not sure of the right dose. These medications do not cure headaches, and if used too often they may not work as well or may lead to increased numbers of headaches.
Rest and relax. During a headache, encourage your child to rest in a quiet room. Consider reading a book or another quiet activity, and avoid loud TV or music. Sleeping often helps headaches go away for children.
Use a cool wet compress. While your child rests, place a cool wet cloth on his or her forehead.
Offer water or a healthy snack. If your child has not eaten recently, offer a healthy snack as missing meals can make headaches worse.
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The Advice for Patients feature is a public service of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your child's medical condition, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine suggests that you consult your child's physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 312/464-0776.
Headaches. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2010;164(4):400. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2010.28