Headaches are uncomfortable at any age, but for children they can be especially distressing. Pediatric headaches, like adult ones, can have a variety of causes; most are benign and can be treated at home with over the counter medication, but in some cases they may be symptomatic of a more serious condition.
One reason pediatric headaches are so frustrating is that depending on their age, kids may have difficulty expressing the kind of pain they’re feeling, or its intensity. “Headache” is a pretty broad term: the pain may be a dull ache – located in one area or all over – it may be throbbing, or it could be a shooting pain. If they can, ask them to communicate the type of pain they feel, and whether or not its isolated or all over; you should also find out if they have other symptoms such as nausea or sensitivity to light and sound. This information can help pinpoint the cause.
Children can get tension headaches and migraines. Tension headaches are usually brought on by anxiety and have symptoms like tightness in the neck muscles, but no nausea or vomiting. Migraines are often accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light and sound, and get worse when the child is physically active. Their migraines tend to have a shorter span than adults (lasting less than four hours) and often begin in the afternoon. Migraines are often genetic, so if you or someone in your family suffers from them, you may be able to spot the signs.
Headaches can be caused by a number of infections: the flu, the common cold, sinus or ear infections, and Lyme disease. Other symptoms (fever, runny nose, earache) can indicate an infection. Poor sleeping or eating habits can lead to headaches, as well as dehydration, so make sure they’re getting enough water, sleep, and healthy food; some pediatric headaches come from an excess of sugar, caffeine, and additives like aspartame or MSG. Certain medications, both prescription and over the counter, can cause headaches, so check the labels or consult a doctor to see if it’s listed as a side effect.
When kids are too young to adequately explain their feelings and symptoms, they may give you other signs. Infants and toddlers who can’t speak may hold their head and cry; kids may be more withdrawn and want to spend more time sleeping, even during the day. If you notice these signs, try to find out if they’re in pain. If headaches occur following a head injury, even if it seemed minor at the time, consult a doctor immediately as it could be signs of more serious trauma.