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Headaches in children: What parents need to know

There are many things parents can do to help prevent and treat headaches in their kids.

Like skinned knees, headaches are an inevitable part of childhood. Sooner or later, just about every child gets at least a mild one.

Fortunately, when children do experience headaches, they're usually not a cause for alarm. Often, they're the result of something simple, such as a short-lived infection, too little sleep or a missed meal.

Only rarely are headaches a warning sign of a serious health problem, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Even so, headaches can be so painful that they cause youngsters to miss school and keep them from playing with friends.

There's reassuring news for headache-prone kids though.

"Kids don't have to be victims of headaches. Even for frequent, severe headaches, we have good treatments," says Merle Diamond, MD, a board member with the National Headache Foundation (NHF).

What's wrong?

Often, children's headaches turn out to be "primary headaches"—or headaches that develop by themselves, rather than from an illness or injury.

Generally, children have one of two types of primary headaches, though sometimes these two types are very difficult to distinguish from each other:

Tension-type headaches. Children in the midst of one of these headaches may complain of a moderate, viselike pain, as though a rubber band were being squeezed around their heads, according to the NHF. Stress, depression or insufficient sleep often are to blame.

Migraines. These headaches can be triggered by stress, a change in routine, bright lights, loud noises or certain foods. Often, they're inherited.

In contrast to adults, children often experience the throbbing pain of migraines on both sides of the head—not just one, according to the NHF. That pain may be coupled with nausea, dizziness and extreme sensitivity to light or sounds. A few children have blurred vision or see colored or flashing lights minutes before their headache pain starts—what doctors call an aura.

Heading off headaches

If your child is prone to headaches, it's important for you to know that they often can be prevented—with some simple steps, according to Dr. Diamond and pediatric neurologist Paul Fisher, MD, past chairman of the AAP Section on Neurology.

Be sure your child:

  • Gets enough shut-eye. To stay headache-free, kids typically need 8 to 10 hours of sleep nightly. Sticking to a regular sleep schedule is also essential.
  • Doesn't skip meals, particularly breakfast. Children who wake up with morning headaches may be reacting to low blood sugar brought on by an empty stomach.
  • Drinks enough water, especially during hot weather or active play. Dehydration is a frequent headache trigger.
  • Exercises regularly. Thirty minutes of physical activity on most days of the week helps protect against headaches.
  • Has help coping with stress. Teach your child how to relax when headache-inducing tension builds. Encourage your child to take slow, deep breaths; to imagine a soothing image; or to unwind with a walk. Also help your child minimize stress—for instance, by eliminating activities from a crowded schedule.
  • Avoids troublesome foods. In some kids, certain foods can trigger headaches. Common culprits include aged cheese, chocolate, caffeinated drinks, and foods preserved with nitrates (such as luncheon meats) or seasoned with MSG (monosodium glutamate). A doctor can help you identify any foods that may affect your child.

Home treatments

If your child still winds up with a headache despite the above precautions, then what?

For the occasional mild headache, simply having your child nap in a quiet, darkened room may be the only treatment necessary, Dr. Fisher says. Alternatively, you might give your child a nonprescription pain reliever (such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen).

But don't give your child these pain medications more than twice a week, Dr. Fisher says. And never give aspirin to a child younger than 18 years without a doctor's OK—doing so could cause a rare but life-threatening disorder.

When to see a doctor

Some headaches do need a doctor's attention—especially frequent or severe ones.

"If your child begins to have weekly headaches or headaches that are painful enough that your child misses school or other activities, it's time for a doctor's help," Dr. Diamond says.

Expect your child's doctor to do a physical exam and take a detailed medical history to determine what's causing your child's headaches and the best way to treat them.

The treatment plan may include avoiding triggers, getting professional counseling if stress is contributing to headaches, and taking medications. Drugs are available both to ease pain and—if headaches are frequent—stop them from occurring in the first place.

If treatment doesn't help your child's headaches, ask for a referral to a doctor who specializes in easing headaches, such as a neurologist, Dr. Diamond says.

"Be a good advocate for your child," she stresses. "Headaches should not disrupt anyone's life."

reviewed 11/13/2019

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