Causes and Symptoms of a Headache and Stomach Ache in a Child

Headaches and stomach aches commonly occur in children. Fortunately, whether due to anxiety, an illness, or simply not enough sleep, symptoms of these conditions are usually easy to treat.

This article will discuss the causes, symptoms, and treatments for a headache and stomach ache in a child.

Caring mother looking at daughter's bruised eye in kitchen

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What Are the Causes of a Headache and Stomach Ache in a Child?

From daily stress to an undiagnosed condition, there are many possible reasons for your child’s headache and stomach ache.

Headache Causes

Children can have migraines, moderate to severe headaches that last 24 to 48 hours and usually occur two to four times a month, and tension headaches, mild to moderate headaches that are usually triggered by stress or mental and emotional conflict.

How Common Are Migraines in Children?

Migraine, also called an acute recurrent headache, occurs in about 3% of preschool children, 4% to 11% of elementary school-aged children, and 8% to 15% of high school-aged children. In early childhood and before puberty, migraine is more commonly seen in boys than girls.

Factors that can lead to a headache in your child include:

  • Illness or infection (such as the common cold)
  • Short-sightedness or needing glasses 
  • Lack of sleep or poor sleep quality
  • Head trauma or injury
  • Stress and anxiety
  • A family history of migraines or headaches
  • Foods that contain nitrates (such as hot dogs) and caffeine (such as soda and chocolate)
  • Conditions that affect the brain (such as a brain tumor)
  • A condition that affects the circulatory system, which is made up of arteries, veins, and lymph vessels and helps circulate oxygen and nutrients throughout the body

Stomach Ache Causes

About one out of three children is seen by a doctor for stomach ache by the time they are 15, but only a small number of these children have a serious problem. Stomach ache in children is usually a result of changes in eating and bowel habits.

Possible causes of stomach ache in children include:

Stomach pain without other symptoms that goes away completely in less than three hours is usually not serious.

A specific illness known as a pediatric abdominal migraine can also lead to stomach ache. It is often accompanied by nausea and vomiting. While it’s called a “migraine,” it doesn’t actually cause a headache. Abdominal migraines are one of the most common causes of abdominal pain in children.

Common Symptoms of Headaches and Stomach Aches

Symptoms of headaches and stomach aches in children vary depending on the cause and type.

Headache Symptoms

Headaches can happen just once or be recurrent. They can also be localized to one or more areas of the head and face. Specific symptoms will be different depending on the type of headache your child has.

Children will experience these symptoms if they have a migraine:

  • Pain on one or both sides of the head (some younger children may have pain all over)
  • Pain may be throbbing or pounding
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Sweating

Headaches Doctor Discussion Guide

Doctor Discussion Guide Old Man

Your child may also become quiet or pale. Some children have an aura—a warning sign that a migraine is about to start—before the migraine such as a sense of flashing lights, a change in vision, or funny smells.

For tension headaches, your children will have these symptoms:

  • Headache comes on slowly
  • Head usually hurts on both sides
  • Pain is dull or feels like a band around the head
  • Pain may involve the back of the head or neck
  • Pain is mild to moderate, but not severe
  • You may notice change in your child’s sleep habits

Children with tension headaches typically do not experience nausea, vomiting, or light sensitivity.

Children may not be able to tell you they have symptoms of a headache. Other signs that may indicate your child has a headache include crying, rocking back and forth, withdrawing from activities, and wanting to sleep more.

Stomach Ache Symptoms

Children with stomach aches will often complain that their stomach hurts. Where on the stomach your child feels pain and the cause of the pain determine what other symptoms your child will have.

  • Pain around the belly button: Pain near the belly button is likely caused by stress or eating too much of something that bothered their stomach. Your child likely won’t have any other symptoms.
  • Pain in the lower right part of their abdomen: Pain in this area could be caused by appendicitis and could come with other symptoms such as fever, nausea or vomiting, loss of appetite, constipation or diarrhea, and having a hard time passing gas.
  • Pain on the left side of the abdomen: This pain could be caused by constipation. Other signs that your child may be constipated include hard stools, straining while trying to have a bowel movement, bloating, and nausea.
  • Pain in the upper abdomen: It’s likely that this type of pain is caused by indigestion. It can appear with other symptoms such as nausea, bloating, heartburn, and increased belching.

The signs your child may be in pain but cannot find the right words to tell you include:

  • Feeling restless
  • Exhibiting changes in behavior
  • Excessive crying
  • Holding their breath or grunting
  • Making certain facial expressions such as appearing angry or keeping their eyes closed
  • Sleeping less or more than they usually do
  • Making fists or moving their body in unusual ways like kicking or clinging to whoever is holding them

When to Call a Doctor

Most headaches and stomach aches in children are not serious, but they can be. If you notice your child’s pain is getting worse, they are waking from sleep because of the pain, their personality is changing, or they have a fever or stiff neck, you should make an appointment with your pediatrician immediately.

Diagnosis and Treatment of a Headache and Stomach Ache in a Child

Your doctor will take a health history and perform a physical exam. If the pain in your child’s head is getting worse, your doctor will perform a neurological exam to check for issues in the brain. If the history is consistent with migraine or tension headaches and the neurological exam is normal, no further diagnostic testing may be necessary.

Imaging tests such as an MRI and CT scan will be done. They will take pictures of the inside of the head or abdomen to assess for any potential problems in the brain or stomach. A polysomnogram may also be done if your doctor suspects your child has a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or another sleep-related problem.

When serious conditions have been ruled out, you can treat the pain at home by giving your child over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Aspirin should not be used to help treat pain in your child, and ibuprofen should only be used if your child is over the age of 6 months unless your doctor says otherwise.

Other home treatments for abdominal pain often depend on other symptoms that are present with the pain such as diarrhea and nausea. Try the following if your child has mild abdominal pain without other symptoms:

  • Have your child rest. Most symptoms will get better or go away in 30 minutes.
  • Have your child sip clear fluids such as water, broth, tea, or fruit juice diluted with water.
  • Have your child try to pass a stool.

Risk Factors for Headaches and Stomach Aches

Headache Rick Factors

Risk factors of headaches in children include:

  • A lack of physical activity or being overweight
  • Eating foods or drinking beverages with caffeine
  • A lack of free time to do unplanned activities
  • Stress
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse

Research has also shown that young girls are more likely to experience headaches once they reach puberty because of the effects that the changes in hormones have on the body during menstruation. More research is needed to determine why the changes in hormones cause an increased risk for headaches following the onset of puberty.

Stomach Ache Risk Factors

Risk factors associated with stomach aches in children include:

  • Psychiatric disorders such as anxiety or depression
  • Emotional stress or disturbances
  • Traumatic events such as abuse, a motor vehicle accident, or a poor home life
  • Prior stomach infections

Some research suggests that eating a diet that is high in junk food may play a role in the onset of stomach aches in children, although more research is needed to determine whether a poor diet can be a risk factor for stomach pain.

Although the risk factors for headaches and stomach aches vary, one of the most common risk factors for both ailments is stress.

How to Prevent a Headache and Stomach Ache in a Child

Preventing headaches and stomach aches in children relies heavily on lifestyle changes, which include:

  • Getting regular exercise: Regular exercise can help reduce the risk of headaches, but some children may get a headache after intense physical exercise.
  • Getting plenty of quality sleep: Lack of sleep can lead to headaches in children, so getting enough sleep can help prevent headaches.
  • Eating healthily: Eating a diet rich in nutrients and vitamins, practicing portion control, and avoiding skipping meals could help your child avoid a headache.
  • Limiting caffeine: Caffeine is often a trigger for headaches, so it should be avoided or eliminated from your child’s diet.
  • Reducing stress: Reducing stress and practicing stress-reduction techniques such as yoga or meditation could help your child cope with stress.
  • Keeping a headache or stomach ache diary: This helps identify triggers and relief that work for your child.
  • Following your doctor’s orders: If your doctor suggests a preventive medication for your child’s migraines, follow their instructions and make sure your child takes their medication.
  • Following good hygiene practices: To avoid stomach aches, encourage your child to regularly wash their hands before eating to reduce the risk of your child getting a stomach bug.
  • Avoiding trigger foods that can cause stomach upset: Certain foods can trigger stomach aches in your child. For example, if your child gets a stomach ache after eating dairy, you can limit or eliminate dairy foods from their diet.

Summary

Headaches and stomach aches are common in children. They can be caused by stress and a number of underlying conditions. However, they are usually not serious and can be treated at home.

Your doctor can help you determine the cause of your child’s headache or stomach ache and recommend the appropriate treatment. Avoiding triggers and establishing a good diet and sleep routine for your child can help minimize their chances of getting headaches or stomach aches.

A Word From Verywell

It can be difficult to watch your child deal with headaches and stomach aches. You want to do everything you can to take their pain away, but sometimes you can’t. The good news is that most headaches and stomach aches in children are common and not indicative of a serious health condition.

Since stress, anxiety, and depression are considered to be common causes, it’s crucial to ensure that your child is as stress-free as possible or getting the help they need for their mental health. Seek out the proper medical treatment or advice from your doctor, and allow your child to have some free time they can use to de-stress and relax.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can stress cause a headache and stomach ache in my child?

Stress is one of the main causes of headaches and stomach aches in children. Stress can come from anywhere, whether it be at home or school. It’s important that you help your child cope with stress in the best way possible for them to help avoid stress-induced headaches or stomach aches.

What does it mean if my child frequently has a headache and stomach ache?

Frequent headaches and stomach aches in children could be a sign of an underlying condition. If your child has repeated bouts of one or both ailments, keep a diary that records their symptoms, possible triggers, and relief methods that have worked. You can take this diary to your doctor to help them determine if more tests are needed to diagnose the cause of your child’s headache or stomach ache.

When should I be concerned about my child’s headache and stomach ache?

Although most headaches and stomach aches in children aren’t serious, some can be a sign of an underlying condition. For headaches, you should call your doctor immediately if your child is experiencing a sudden headache that is more painful than anything they’ve ever experienced, a fever, or cognitive issues such as slurred speech, confusion, or behavior changes.

If your child’s stomach ache is getting worse, it wakes them up from sleep, is accompanied by vomiting, and if they are unusually sleepy, you should call your doctor immediately. A fever, blood in their stool or urine, and unexplained weight loss should also prompt you to visit a doctor.

Headaches and stomach aches that occur directly after an injury should also be investigated by your child’s doctor.

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14 Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Kelly M, Strelzik J, Langdon R, DiSabella M. Pediatric headache: overview. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2018;30(6):748-754. doi:10.1097/MOP.0000000000000688