A headache is an ache or pain that occurs in any region of the head. There are many different types and causes of headaches in children. Headaches are especially common in teenagers. Most are not serious and can be easily treated with simple measures such as Paracetamol and/or Ibuprofen.
Types of headaches
The most common types are tension and migraine headaches. These are known as primary headaches. Occasionally headaches are a symptom of another problem such as dental problems, infections, eye problems, ear problems, medication side effects or dehydration. Rarely, a child may have other symptoms with a headache that cause a doctor to be concerned about the brain and tests may be required. Your doctor will tell you if this is needed for your child.
What is a migraine?
A migraine is a headache that is usually more severe and tends to occur multiple times. Migraines can affect one or both sides of the head and may be worse with activity. Migraines are most common in childhood around age 15.
Signs and symptoms
A child with a migraine will have a headache with at least one of the following symptoms:
- nausea or vomiting
- sensitivity to light (photophobia)
- sensitivity to noise (phonophobia)
Some children with a migraine may experience an ‘aura’ prior to its onset. Auras may be a visual disturbance (such as a flash of light, blurred vision or blind spots), an odour or tingling in the hand or face that starts from a few seconds to an hour before the headache. A child usually experiences the same aura each time they have a migraine.
It can be hard to identify migraine symptoms if your child is too young to describe them to you. They may just want to go to sleep.
A trigger is something that brings on a migraine. Common triggers for migraines in children include:
- missing meals
- not enough sleep
- bright lights such as computer screens, fluorescent lights and sunlight
- certain foods
Common food triggers include chocolate, cheese, caffeinated drinks, additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) and aspartame (an artificial sweetener) and fatty or salty foods.
What age can a migraine start?
Migraines often start in childhood or adolescence and may decrease with age or continue through to adulthood. Migraines have been reported in children as young as seven.
Children with a family history of migraines are more likely to get a migraine.
Treating a migraine
Give your child Paracetamol (Panadol) or Ibuprofen (Nurofen) as soon as symptoms start. If your child gets an aura before the migraine, give the medications at the time the aura starts. Follow the instructions on the packaging to make sure you give your child the correct dose.
These simple painkillers are usually all that is required. Occasionally, children may require additional medication that is given through a drip or sprayed into the nose in hospital.
Medications containing codeine (e.g. Painstop or Panadeine) should not be used. They may make the migraine last longer or happen more often.
Resting in a quiet dark room may reduce symptoms. Migraines often settle with sleep.