Kids Health Info

Migraine headache

  • Migraine is a type of really bad headache often felt on one side of the head. Some children get migraines every now and then, while others get them more than once a week. The headaches can range from being mild to very severe.

    It's not exactly clear what causes migraines, but they are likely to happen when blood vessels of the head and neck spasm (shake) or become narrow (constrict). Minutes to hours later, the blood vessels enlarge (dilate). When they dilate, they fill with blood which causes more pressure in the skull and a headache develops.

    Migraine headaches happen to about six in every 100 people. They are common in children and in many cases they appear to run in the family. Migraine is not a serious or life-threatening disorder. It is painful and annoying at the time, but it is not usually a serious problem. About half of children who get migraines will continue to have them when they are adults. In teenagers and adults migraines are more frequent in females, but in children they happen equally between boys and girls.

    Signs and symptoms

    A headache, which may be:

    • dull or throbbing
    • all over or worse on the sides of the head
    • on only one side of the head
    • severe or mild.

    The headache commonly lasts six to 12 hours. Your child may also:

    • have loss of appetite
    • feel sick - have nausea or vomiting
    • look pale
    • feel tired
    • have stomach pain.

    Doctors can usually make the diagnosis of migraine after carefully listening to the story and examining your child. In a very small number of children, tests may be done to rule out other causes of headache. Most children do not need any tests, and there are no tests which prove the diagnosis of migraine.

    Causes

    Many things can trigger or start migraine headaches:

    • being tired
    • bright lights
    • loud noises
    • relaxation after physical or mental stress (for example, after exercise or extended periods of study)
    • muscle tension over a long time
    • smoking, or breathing in tobacco smoke
    • missing meals
    • drinking alcohol
    • caffeine (found in coffee, many energy drinks and some medicines)
    • menstrual periods
    • using oral contraceptives (the pill).

    Food

    In only a few children, migraine can be triggered or started by certain foods such as:

    • food with the amino acid tyramine (e.g. red wine, aged cheese, smoked fish, chicken livers, figs, some beans)
    • chocolate
    • nuts
    • peanut butter
    • fruits (especially avocado, banana, citrus fruit)
    • onions
    • dairy products (milk, yoghurt, cheese)
    • baked goods
    • meats with nitrates (e.g. bacon, hot dogs, salami, cured meats)
    • foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG), an additive in many foods
    • any processed, fermented, pickled, or marinated food.

    For most children, changing the diet does not help.

    Treatment

    There is no cure for migraine. Anything that has triggered a migraine in the past should be avoided if possible. The goals of treatment are to control your child's symptoms and prevent further migraines.

    Medications are commonly used to help with pain during a headache, and are best given as soon as any symptoms begin to develop at the start of a headache. Children who get very frequent migraine headaches, especially if they interfere with going to school, may be given preventative medication to reduce the frequency of the headaches. Your child's doctor will discuss what treatment is appropriate with you.

    Care at home

    • Regular meals and sleep patterns are very important.
    • Resting in a quiet, dark room may reduce how severe the symptoms are when a headache happens.
    • Paracetamol (Panadol, Dymadon, etc) may reduce pain if taken at the beginning of the headache.
    • Alternative therapies, including relaxation techniques, can help some children.

    Key points to remember

    • Migraine headache is painful and annoying at the time, but it is not usually a serious problem.
    • There is no cure for migraine.
    • Anything that has triggered a migraine in the past should be avoided if possible.

    For more information

     

    Content developed by the Department of Neurology. First published: August 2003. Reviewed: 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.