An Overview of Dizziness and Headaches in Children

Dizziness and headaches in children can have many causes, such as migraines and motion sickness.

Here is an overview of the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment methods of dizziness and headaches in your child.

Hot to Treat Headaches in Children

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Causes of Dizziness and Headaches in Children

Dizziness and headaches are common experiences in children, and they are rarely caused by anything serious.

Causes of Dizziness

Dizziness and fainting are often caused by a sudden drop in blood flow to the head.

Common causes of dizziness in children include:

  • Standing up quickly, or other quick changes in position
  • Hunger/not eating
  • Standing for long periods of time
  • Dehydration (even mild or moderate dehydration can cause dizziness)
  • Hot showers or hot tubs
  • Too much time in the heat or sun
  • Loss of fluid through sweat
  • Fever or illness
  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Heart problems, such as an arrhythmia (an abnormally fast, slow, or irregular heartbeat)

Vestibular issues can also cause dizziness. Some examples include:

  • Motion sickness
  • Inner ear conditions or illnesses
  • Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) or benign paroxysmal vertigo of childhood (sudden sensation of spinning)
  • Vestibular migraines

Vestibular System

The vestibular system involves parts of the inner ear and brain that process the sensory information involved in controlling balance and eye movements.

Causes of Headaches

As with adults, headaches in children can have many causes. Possible conditions that can cause a headache include:

  • Viral illness
  • Muscle tension
  • Hunger
  • Common harmless causes, such as hard exercise, bright sunlight, gum chewing, severe coughing, consuming icy food or drink
  • Stress (good or bad)
  • Anxiety or worry
  • Frontal sinus infection
  • Genetics (migraines appear to run in families)
  • Certain foods or food additives like nitrates (common in deli meat and aged cheeses)
  • Certain smells, such as perfumes, paint, gasoline, bleach, foods, and cigarette smoke
  • Dehydration
  • Lack of quality sleep

Less commonly, headaches in children can be caused by more serious conditions such as:

  • Head injury
  • Meningitis
  • Tumors, seizure disorders, bleeding in the brain, and other conditions

Meningitis Is an Emergency

Meningitis is a bacterial or viral infection of the membrane that covers the spinal cord and brain.

It is very serious and can be fatal.

If the child's headache is accompanied by a stiff neck, particularly if they also have a fever, or if a younger child is lethargic or unable to be consoled, seek immediate emergency treatment.

Co-Occurring Symptoms of Dizziness and Headaches

Dizziness

Dizziness is a feeling that can be hard for young children to describe. They may say that their head feels "funny," they feel foggy, or, depending on the type of dizziness, they may say report feeling a spinning sensation.

Other symptoms can occur with dizziness, including:

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Fainting
  • Headache
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Problems with balance
  • Walking "funny," such as with a wide gait
  • Temporary vision changes, such as a brief blurring of vision or a visual aura (sensory disturbances)
  • Sensitivity to light, sounds, or smell
  • Sensitivity to movement

Dizziness or Vertigo?

The terms dizziness and vertigo are often used interchangeably, but there are important distinctions.

Dizziness refers to feelings such as light-headedness, fogginess, and nausea.

Vertigo is a sensation of movement that isn't happening ("the room is spinning"). It is more likely to cause problems with balance.

Both can occur together, or dizziness can occur without vertigo.

If you are describing your child's dizziness to their healthcare provider, be sure to include if vertigo is present or not.

Headaches

Symptoms that can occur along with headaches depend on the type of headache and what is causing it.

The two most common headaches in children are tension headaches and migraines.

Common symptoms of tension headaches include:

  • A headache that is mild or moderate rather than severe
  • A headache that typically develops during the middle of the day
  • Constant, dull, or achy pain
  • Feeling a tightness (like a band) around the head
  • Headache pain located in the forehead or on both sides of the head
  • Neck pain
  • Fatigue
  • Slow onset of the headache
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Young children may be fussy or cranky

Common symptoms of a migraine in children include:

  • Pain on one or both sides of the head (or pain all over in younger children)
  • Throbbing or pounding head pain
  • Sensitivity to light, smell, or sound
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Sweating
  • Becoming quiet or pale
  • An aura before the migraine, such as a sense of flashing lights, a change in vision, or funny smells (does not always occur)

Shorter attacks, abdominal pain, and nausea/vomiting with a migraine are more common in children than adults.

Vestibular Migraines

Vestibular migraine is a condition with a large overlap between dizziness and migraine. There may or may not be head pain involved.

Symptoms of a vestibular migraine can include combinations of:

  • Severe, throbbing headache, usually on one side of the head
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light, smell, and noise
  • Vertigo and/or dizziness, which usually lasts minutes to hours, but can last for days
  • Trouble with balance/steadiness
  • Sensitivity to motion

Diagnosis

Usually, dizziness and/or headaches do not require a visit to a healthcare professional, but sometimes may be necessary.

For dizziness, a healthcare provider may:

  • Ask for details about symptoms, such as if vertigo is present and when the dizziness started
  • Ask about a family history of fainting, light-headedness, and conditions that can cause dizziness
  • Do a physical exam to check overall health
  • Check blood pressure and heart rate
  • Run an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) or echocardiogram (echo) test to check heart rhythm
  • Run blood tests to check for conditions such as anemia
  • Run other tests to look for or rule out conditions that can cause dizziness

For headaches, a healthcare provider may:

  • Ask questions about the headaches (keeping a diary for recurrent headaches or migraines can help determine triggers)
  • Ask about a family history of headaches or conditions that can cause headaches
  • Ask questions about the child's lifestyle and environment, such as sleeping and eating habits, and emotional and mental health
  • Do a physical exam to check for overall health

Other tests are not usually necessary, but may include:

  • Blood tests: May include a complete blood count (CBC), levels of iron, levels of ferritin (a blood protein that contains iron), and thyroid function tests
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan: Produces detailed images of inside the body using large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer
  • CT (computed tomography) scan: Uses X-rays and computer technology to produce detailed images of any part of the body
  • Polysomnogram: Records breathing and muscle movements in a sleep lab to check for a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or another sleep-related problem

Treatment at Home

Laying down and resting in a dark, quiet, comfortable-temperature room is often all that is needed to get rid of dizziness or headache in children.

Eating a snack or drinking some water or juice can also help both dizziness and headache.

Other remedies are more symptom specific.

Dizziness

If no medical attention is needed, dizziness can be treated at home with remedies such as:

  • Laying the child down with their feet raised at a higher level than their heart
  • Sitting the child with their head placed between their knees
  • If the child is overheated, helping them cool off (a cool, not ice cold, shower or bath can help)

If rest, food, water, or other actions don't alleviate the symptoms, contact a healthcare provider. IV (intravenous, through a vein) fluids may be necessary.

Headaches

If the child does not need medical attention, headaches can be treated at home with:

  • Rest or sleep
  • A cool compress applied to the forehead, eyes, or back of the neck
  • A warm (not hot) compress on the head or neck, or a warm bath or shower
  • Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, mental imagery relaxation, or relaxation to music
  • Food, water, or juice
  • Pain relief medications such as ibuprofen (Advil/Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol)

Use Caution with Medication

  • Give pain medications when the headache first starts as it is more effective before the pain gets worse.
  • Do not give more than two to three doses of pain medications in a week unless directed by a healthcare provider (more than this can cause a type of headache called medication overuse headache).
  • Never give aspirin to a person under age 18, as it can cause a rare but potentially fatal condition called Reye's syndrome.

When to Seek Professional Treatment

If you think your child needs emergency medical attention, call 911 immediately.

If the dizziness or headache doesn't get better, gets worse, or comes back, call your child's healthcare provider. There may be an underlying condition that needs to be addressed.

Dizziness

Seek medical attention right away if there is:

  • Fainting during exercise, active play, or sports
  • A fainting episode that lasts longer than 30 seconds
  • Repeated/recurrent episodes of fainting or dizziness
  • Chest pain accompanying the dizziness or fainting
  • A racing or irregular heartbeat
  • A seizure or signs of a seizure such as repeated jerking of the arms, legs, or face muscles
  • Family history of sudden cardiac death
  • Suspected dehydration or heat exhaustion/heat stroke
  • A belief your child needs medical attention

Headache

Call 911 if there is sudden, severe head pain happening for the first time, especially with:

  • Double vision
  • Confusion
  • Sleepiness/hard to wake up
  • Numbness
  • Projectile vomiting
  • Thinking your child needs emergency care

A stiff neck, or complaints of neck pain, alongside the headache, especially with a fever, may indicate meningitis, which requires emergency medical attention.

Contact the child's healthcare provider for headaches:

  • That occur daily or frequently
  • That are caused by straining from coughing, sneezing, exercising, or having a bowel movement
  • That come with pain in the eye or ear
  • Accompanied by confusion, nausea, or vomiting
  • With sensitivity to light and sound
  • With numbness
  • That keep coming back and are getting worse
  • Following a head injury that last for a week
  • Severe enough to wake the child from sleep
  • About which you have other questions or concerns

Prevention

Staying well rested and well hydrated go a long way in preventing dizziness and headaches in children, but there are other measures that can be taken.

Dizziness

  • Stay hydrated, especially during heat and activity.
  • If needed, increase salt intake (such as eating potato chips or pretzels) to help prevent dehydration.
  • Get enough quality sleep.
  • Eat healthy foods at regular intervals.
  • When standing for long periods, flex leg muscles, change positions, and bend at the waist occasionally.
  • Slowly move from lying to sitting and from sitting to standing.
  • Follow up with a healthcare provider if ongoing measures are needed.

Headaches

  • Learn triggers and avoid them.
  • Take measures to reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced, and varied diet.
  • Get enough quality sleep.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Drink water and other low-sugar, caffeine-free drinks throughout the day.
  • Follow up with a healthcare provider if ongoing measures are needed.

Summary

Dizziness and headaches are common in children and are usually not serious. Depending on the cause, a child might have other symptoms as well. The symptoms might occur separately or together.

Treating headaches and dizziness in kids will depend on what is causing the symptoms. In some cases, at-home and over-the-counter (OTC) treatments might be enough. If these remedies do not work, your doctor may prescribe treatment.

A Word From Verywell

Dizziness and headaches are rarely serious in kids. Most of the time, a cool drink and rest are all that's needed to help your child feel better. If at-home measures do not relieve the dizziness or headache, call your child's doctor.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long will dizziness and headaches last in my child?

    Dizziness and headaches usually go away on their own with a snack, a drink, and rest or sleep.

    If the dizziness or headache lasts longer than this, and you don't know the reason why, call your child's healthcare provider, or seek emergency care if necessary.

  • What is the cause of sudden dizziness and headaches in my child?

    Dizziness and headaches can be caused by a number of factors. Commonly, they are caused by dehydration, hunger, becoming overheated, stress, or illness. Migraines may have triggers such as foods or scents.

    While some causes for dizziness and headaches can be serious, such as meningitis, most of the time temporary dizziness and headaches are nothing to worry about.

  • What should I use to treat dizziness and headaches in my child at home?

    The treatment for dizziness and/or headaches depends on what is causing them, but oftentimes a cool drink, some food, or rest or sleep is enough to relieve dizziness and headaches.

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16 Sources
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