Kids Health Info

Headaches in children and teenagers

  • Headaches are a common and frustrating problem in children and adolescents. They are generally not serious. In fact, between five and eight out of every 10 teenagers say they get at least one headache each month. However, headaches that occur more often than this can be upsetting and may begin to worry you and your child. The most common headaches for teenagers are tension headaches and migraines.

    Types of headaches

    There are many different types of headaches and reasons as to why they occur. Headaches can range in severity from mild to very severe and will affect people in different ways.

    Some types of headache include:

    • Tension - often feels like a tight band around the head. These headaches are caused by the stiffening or tensing up (contracting) of muscles around the head or neck.  The pain of tension headaches is dull and aching and usually felt on both sides of the head, but may be in front and back as well. Pressure or stress at school or home, arguments with parents or friends, having too much to do and feeling anxious or depressed can all cause this type of headache.
    • Migraine - is often described as a 'throbbing' feeling in the head. Migraines are most often felt on only one side of the head, but may be felt on both. Migraines can make people feel light-headed or dizzy, and are often associated with nausea and/or vomiting. Migraine headaches can be associated with visual disturbances (such as seeing spots or being sensitive to light, sounds and smells). A tendency to suffer from migraines often runs in the family.
    • Psychogenic - are less common. These are similar to tension headaches, but their cause is an emotional problem such as depression. Signs of depression include loss of energy, poor appetite or overeating, loss of interest in usual activities, change in sleeping patterns (trouble falling asleep, waking in the middle of the night or too early in the morning), and difficulty thinking or concentrating.

    Signs and symptoms

    Tension headaches are common and are not associated with vomiting or visual changes. They are usually described as dull and steady, do not get better with sleep and are generally triggered by stress.

    Migraine headaches are usually on one side, with pulsing or throbbing pain. Migraines may get better or go away altogether with sleep.  During a migraine you may also have:

    • an aura (visual or sensory changes that happen just before the headache starts)
    • visual changes
    • nausea
    • vomiting.

    Avoiding headaches

    It is not always known what causes headaches in many teenagers.  However, some teenagers will be affected by common triggers such as artificial sweeteners, chocolate, caffeine, flashing lights, loud noises, not enough sleep, too much stress, and missing meals.

    To try to find out what starts your child's headaches, help them to keep a headache diary or daily headache journal, that includes:

    • when the headache started
    • how long it lasted
    • which part of their head hurt
    • if there were any other symptoms
    • how bad it was on a scale of one (mild) to 10 (very bad)
    • what seemed to trigger it
    • what, if anything, helped it to go away
    • the time they went to bed the night before
    • what time the headache stopped
    • if they missed any school because of the headache.

    This information will help the doctor to find the best way of managing and treating your child's headaches in the future.

    To prevent headaches, encourage your child to avoid any specific triggers that they have found. It is a good idea to make sure that they are getting enough sleep, proper nutrition (limiting high sugar and high fat foods, eating fruits, vegetables, lean meats and low fat dairy products) and regular exercise. Also make sure that they have not taken on too many school and extracurricular activities.

    Management

    For the management of the occasional headache, your child can take an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as paracetamol (Panadol, Dymadon etc) or ibuprofen (Nurofen etc). Do not use pain medication too often (i.e. don't take pain relief every day), because this can cause rebound headaches. 

    Rebound headaches from overusing pain-medication can be very painful and are a common cause of chronic daily headaches. If your child is having rebound headaches, it is important to stop all pain medications to break the cycle.

    For more severe, recurrent headaches, your child may be prescribed a stronger, combination medicine. If the headaches are very frequent, they might be advised to try a daily 'prophylactic' medicine to help prevent them from getting these headaches. It is important to discuss and plan this with the doctor.

    There is no cure for migraine headaches. Anything that has triggered a migraine in the past should be avoided if possible.

    If you are worried about your child's headaches, or they begin to disrupt school, home or social life, see the doctor. Other signs that mean your child should visit your doctor include:

    • Head injury - headaches from a recent head injury should be checked right away, especially if your child was knocked out (lost consciousness) by the injury.
    • Seizures/convulsions - any headaches associated with seizures or fainting need immediate attention.
    • Frequency - your child gets more than one headache each week.
    • Degree of pain - headache pain is severe and prevents your child from doing activities they want to do or going to school.
    • Time of attack - headaches that wake your child from sleep or occur in the early morning or when they wake up.
    • Visual difficulties - headaches that cause blurred vision, eye spots, or other visual changes.
    • Other associated symptoms - if fever, vomiting, stiff neck, toothache or jaw pain accompany your child's headache, they may need an examination and some tests (such as an X-ray).

    Key points to remember

    • Headaches are not a disease and are generally not serious.
    • Headaches are common.
    • Keep a journal to help your child identify the sorts of things that may trigger the headaches.

    See the doctor if:

    • the headaches are getting worse
    • they are waking your child up from sleep
    • they are worse in the morning
    • your child has persistent vomiting
    • you notice changes in your child's behaviour or personality.

    For more information

     

    Developed by Dept of Neurology at the Royal Children's Hospital. First published July 2008. Updated November 2010.

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Disclaimer 
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.