In this section
Migraine headaches (migraines) are a type of severe headache, which is 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.
Migraines tend to run in the family and 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.
While they can be painful and disruptive at the time, migraines are not usually a serious problem, and they are not life-threatening. Treatment involves controlling your child's symptoms and preventing further migraines.
Toddlers and young children may experience headache with nausea/vomiting and they may go pale quite suddenly.
Older children and teenagers experience more adult-like migraines. The symptoms commonly include a headache, which lasts six to 12 hours, and may be:
Your child may also:
Some children experience an aura (visual or sensory changes that happen just before the headache starts). These can be quite distressing for children, as they may see spots or zig-zag lines; be sensitive to light, sound or smell; develop tingling of the lips; or lose part of their vision. An
aura typically lasts for a few minutes before disappearing when the headache begins.
Some children may experience certain rare features of migraine, such as dizziness or fainting (basilar migraine), tingling around the face and arms (hemiplegic migraine), or they may be suddenly confused and disorientated (acute confusional migraine). However, these symptoms may be
signs of a more serious condition, such as stroke. If your child has a headache and suddenly develops any of these symptoms, call an ambulance immediately.
Regardless of your child's age, migraines usually get better or go away altogether with sleep.
It's not exactly clear what causes migraines, but they are likely to happen when blood vessels of the head and neck spasm or constrict (become narrow). Minutes to hours later, the blood vessels dilate (get larger). When they dilate, they fill with blood, which causes more
pressure in the skull and a headache develops.
Many things can trigger (start) migraine headaches, including:
For a few children, migraines can be triggered by certain foods, such as:
If your child experiences frequent or severe headaches, see your GP.
There are no specific tests to diagnose migraine, but doctors can usually make the diagnosis after considering the description of your child's headaches, and examining your child. In a very small number of children, tests may be done to rule out other causes of headache, but
most children do not need any tests.
You should also take your child to see the GP if:
Take your child to the nearest doctor or hospital emergency department if your child's headache is associated with:
There is no cure for children who experience regular migraines. However, children who get very frequent migraine headaches may be prescribed preventative medication (prophylaxis) to reduce the frequency of the headaches. Your child's doctor will discuss what treatment is appropriate with
There are a number of ways to help your child while they are having a migraine:
The following may help to control your child's symptoms and prevent further migraines.
When your child first starts getting migraines, a headache diary can help to work out the triggers. The headache diary should include:
Does my child need a scan of their brain?
Most children do not need any tests. Usually a migraine can
be diagnosed based on the history of the episodes. If there are any concerns on
examination or unusual features in your child's history, your doctor may
arrange a scan of your child's brain to exclude other potential causes of
I used to give my teenager medication with codeine to help
his migraines. What is a good alternative to codeine?
Codeine is no longer recommended as a pain relief medicine
because it is an opioid drug that has
been shown to offer very little additional benefit compared to similar
medicines without codeine, while being associated with potential side effects.
For bad headaches, you can give both ibuprofen and paracetamol at the same
time. If nothing provides relief, see your GP to discuss other options – there
are medications specifically formulated to help with migraines.
What is an abdominal migraine?
Some children experience migraines in their
stomach instead of their heads – they may have pain in the middle of their
abdomen, and some of the other signs of migraine, such as nausea and tiredness.
They are well between attacks. You should discuss these symptoms with your GP.
Abdominal migraines are thought to have similar risk factors and triggers to
migraine headaches, and similar treatment is suggested, e.g. rest, sleep, pain
Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Neurology department. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.
Reviewed May 2018.
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