Your daughter has complained about her head hurting more often in the last few weeks. At what point should you worry about her headaches?
That’s a really common question for parents, actually. As with anything related to our health, it’s difficult to know when something is “normal” and when it’s a cause for concern.
For the most part, childhood headaches are quite normal. Most kids and teens experience occasional headaches that may occur due to a variety of factors. In fact, one in five American kids experience headaches regularly.
But because anything related to your child’s health can be worrisome at times, we want to take a few minutes to talk through the causes of headaches in kids and when to seek medical attention.
Kimberly Burch, MD, pediatrician with West Tennessee Medical Group, sheds some light on the topic below.
The Causes of Headaches in Kids
The most common question we get related to childhood headaches is about what causes them. Well, quite simply, headaches in kids are caused by many of the same things that cause headaches in adults.
A headache occurs when something changes in the head, such as a change related to the chemicals, nerves or blood vessels found there. This can be caused by any number of factors, including:
- A lack of quality sleep
- A missed meal or lack of food
- Common viruses such as a cold, strep throat, a sinus infection or an ear infection
- Excessive caffeine intake
- Heat or sun exposure
- Seasonal allergies
- Some medications
- Vision problems or too much screen time
Sound familiar? So many of those factors overlap with the ones that are responsible for our headaches as adults!
The Types of Headaches Kids Experience
Kids also experience the same types of headaches adults do. Tension headaches are the most common in kids and teens, often triggered by stress.
When your child has a tension headache, it will typically cause a gradual onset of mild to moderate pain on both sides of the head.
Cluster headaches, which occur in “clusters” over weeks and even months, are more common in older kids. This type of headache is most common in those age 10 and older and in males.
A cluster headache is likely to cause severe pain on one side of the head, typically involving the eye. A child with a cluster headache may also experience a runny or congested nose and facial swelling.
And finally, kids also experience migraines. In fact, this type of severely painful headache occurs in around 5 percent of all children, including 20 percent of teens.
Most often, kids who have migraines have a family history of the condition—if one parent gets migraines, a child is 50 percent more likely to also get migraines, while if both parents get migraines, the risk increases to 75 percent.
Migraines cause intense pain that can occur on one or both sides of the head. This symptom is typically experienced alongside sensitivity to light or sound and stomach-related issues.
When to Seek Medical Attention for a Child’s Headache
It’s important to keep in mind that most childhood headaches are normal and will likely disappear as quickly as they arrive. In most cases, headaches will respond to rest and basic at-home care, including the use of over-the-counter pain medications or anti-inflammatories.
With that said, though, it’s a good idea to know the signs that your child’s headache may merit a trip to the doctor’s office. Talk with your medical provider if your child’s headache seems to worsen rather than improving over time.
You should also seek medical attention if:
- Your child’s headache is the result of a head injury.
- Your child is vomiting.
- Your child seems less alert than normal.
- Your child also has a fever or signs of an infection.
- Your child experiences neck pain or stiffness along with the headache.
- Your child develops weakness, seizures, visual changes or clumsiness along with the headache.
- Your child has difficulty walking, talking or standing.
- Your child’s personality changes.
- Your child is drinking or urinating more than normal.
- Your child’s headache worsens when he or she is lying down.
It’s also a good idea to seek medical attention if your child or teen is experiencing headaches that are frequent or interfering with daily life. This type of chronic headache may be normal for your child, but it’s best to let a medical provider perform a thorough exam to be sure.