Headaches in kids can happen for a lot of different reasons, and doctors agree that most of them are not due to serious medical problems, but no matter what, they’re no fun. There are some kids who continue to have daily headaches for weeks (even after a virus goes away). These kids may be dealing with a migraine or a tension-type headache, two recurring conditions. Either kind can last from 30 minutes to days at a time. Migraines occur when overly stimulated brain cells cause blood vessels to dilate and the membranes covering the brain become inflamed, which then sets off pain signals in the head. Tension-type headaches, on the other hand, are related to muscles tightening in the neck or scalp. Both are known as primary headaches. In children, both types of headaches tend to cause pain on both sides of the head, so it can be difficult to tell one kind from the other. A tip-off that your child may be having migraines is your family history. “Indeed, migraines can run in families,” says Jon Betts, M.D., a pediatrician with Old Harding Pediatric Associates in Nashville. “In fact, up to 5 percent of children are affected by migraine headaches,” he says. And while migraines can occur at any age, they most commonly start at age 6 - 7 in boys and 10 - 11 in girls. Triggers for migraines are unique to individuals, Betts says, but some, like sleep deprivation or dehydration, can be avoided. Certain foods can trigger a migraine, though, so Betts recommends keeping a food journal for several weeks to identify culprits. Additional migraine triggers can include low blood sugar, anxiety and stress, visual strain (limit the screen time!) and sometimes medications.
An Adult’s Migraine Can Last for Days, But What About a Child’s?
“Migraines may last one to three hours in younger children or as long as 72 hours in adolescents,” says Hillary H. Hunt, M.D., a pediatrician with Tennessee Medicine and Pediatrics in Smyrna. “They usually improve with rest and are aggravated by physical activity and frequently are accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light or sound,” she adds. Treatment for migraines in kids include ibuprofen or acetaminophen, cool compresses to the forehead, reclining in a cool, dark room and taking deep, calming breaths.
Should You Worry?
While migraines are burdensome for those who have them, they’re not secondary headaches which are the type that concern doctors most. Betts says there are certain features of secondary headaches that parents should watch out for and inform their pediatrician about if they happen. First, the severity. If your child tells you it’s “the worst headache of my life,” that should be of concern, Betts says. If the headache isn’t severe but gradually gets worse over a period of days or weeks, this too is concerning. And with regard to location, headaches that occur in the back of the head are uncommon and of more concern than those that occur in the front or all over. Lastly, if your child’s headache is accompanied by vomiting, vision changes, dizziness or other abnormalities, he should see the doctor. Symptoms that could signal a more serious problem for your child include headaches that wake him from sleep or ones that worsen when lying down or that increase with coughing, urinating or having a bowel movement, says Hunt.