Overview of Headaches in Kids and the Symptoms to Worry About

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Headaches affect 20% of children ages five to 17. While they are typically mild and not cause for concern, some headaches may be more severe than others, especially if they prevent your child from participating in their everyday activities and routines. 

Read more about headaches in children and which signs and symptoms to worry about.

Young boy in bed with a headache

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Causes of Headaches in Children

Children can get headaches for a variety of reasons. In some cases, there may be more than one source. Some of the main causes of headaches in children include:

  • Illness or infection: Children can experience a headache as a result of having a cold, a sinus infection, or the flu.
  • Genetics: A child is more likely to get headaches if a parent or immediate family member gets frequent headaches or migraines.
  • Diet: Skipping meals or changing meal patterns can cause headaches. Certain foods and drinks can also increase the likelihood of headaches, including chocolate, cheese, caffeine, fermented foods, and foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG).
  • Poor sleep: Lack of sleep or poor sleep can cause headaches in children.
  • Environmental factors: Some children may be affected by environmental elements like smoke, pollution, perfumes, strong lighting, or loud noises.
  • Mental health: Stress, anxiety, or emotional conflict that results from stressful or upsetting situations at school or problems with family and friends can cause headaches in children.
  • Head trauma: Head injuries will cause headaches in children. Be sure to have your child examined by a physician after a head injury.

In rare cases, headaches may be caused by a more serious condition, like a brain tumor. If you are worried about your child's headaches, meet with your pediatrician or other healthcare provider to discuss your child's symptoms.

Types of Headaches

The main types of headaches your child may experience include:

  • Tension headache: The most common type of headache. These usually resolve within a few hours and produce mild to moderate pain.
  • Migraine headache: Can be severe and debilitating. Your child may experience nausea, vomiting, pain, light sensitivity, dizziness, or stomach pain as a result of migraines.
  • Chronic or cluster headache: Recurrent, painful headaches that can last weeks or months.

Symptoms to Worry About

Many children experience headaches at some point. Most are not serious and do not require medical treatment. But in cases of severe headache, there are some symptoms to watch out for to determine if they are a sign of something more serious.

The primary symptoms of a more severe headache that may require medical treatment include:

  • Fever
  • Persistent vomiting or nausea
  • Changes to vision or vision loss
  • Neck pain or stiffness
  • Change in level of consciousness
  • Inability to sleep or wake normally due to pain severity

If your child experiences these symptoms, contact your healthcare provider or pediatrician for treatment recommendations.

You should also contact your healthcare provider if your child requires pain medication more than two or three times per week, requires more than the normal dosage, or misses school due to headache pain.

Your child's headache may be a symptom of something more serious or a sign of another medical condition if they experience the following:

  • Body or muscle weakness
  • Balance problems
  • Sudden onset of severe pain
  • Headaches that awaken your child from sleep or start early in the morning
  • Pain that worsens due to strain, like from sneezing or coughing
  • Recurrent vomiting without nausea or any symptoms of a stomach illness
  • Personality changes
  • Changes in vision
  • Seizures

Seek Immediate Medical Attention for Head Injuries

If your child has a headache following a head injury of any kind, such as a sports injury, contact your physician immediately or go to the hospital emergency room for examination.

How to Relieve Your Child’s Headache

Severe headaches without a clear cause can be challenging to treat at home. You should speak to your healthcare provider about diagnostic testing options that may provide more information on how to treat your child’s headaches.

Some headaches may be resolved simply with rest and sleep, particularly in a quiet, dark environment.

Other drug-free treatment options include:

  • Eating meals regularly and avoiding trigger foods
  • Staying properly hydrated
  • Exercising
  • Managing stress

If these actions don't relieve your child's headache, you may consider giving them medication.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications like Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) and Tylenol (acetaminophen) may help provide some pain relief. Consult with your pediatrician or other healthcare provider if you have any concerns using these medicines.

If your child requires more than two or three doses per week, or requires more than the recommended dose to relieve pain, contact your healthcare provider.

Avoid Aspirin

Aspirin use in children can cause Reye's syndrome, a serious and sometimes fatal metabolic disorder. Avoid giving your child aspirin or products containing aspirin as a treatment for headaches.

When to Seek Professional Help

If your child is experiencing fever, vision loss, or vomiting as a result of a headache, contact your pediatrician or healthcare provider to discuss treatment options.

If your child is experiencing severe symptoms like body weakness, balance problems, a change in consciousness, persistent vomiting, or a sudden onset of major pain, seek medical attention by contacting your physician promptly or going to the emergency room.

You should also seek emergency help if your child is experiencing a headache following a head injury.

Ways to Prevent Headaches in Kids

Parents can help their children prevent headaches and manage headache symptoms more effectively by encouraging behavioral changes, including:

  • Making sure your child has a regular sleep schedule and gets the appropriate amount of sleep
  • Encouraging regular exercise
  • Staying hydrated and eating a healthy diet
  • Encouraging rest and relaxation
  • Learning how to manage stress

While medication may not always be the answer, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider about over-the-counter pain relievers that your child can take at the very start of a headache to lessen the magnitude of the pain.

Tracking Food Triggers

Keeping a journal to document foods and situations when your child’s headaches occur can help you identify triggers to prevent future headaches.

A Word From Verywell

Headaches in children, especially chronic headaches, can be difficult for the whole family. Ask your physician for recommendations regarding headache management and prevention.

If you think your child can benefit from medicine to relieve headaches, consider talking to your healthcare provider about the pros and cons of different medications, including over-the-counter products.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How frequent are headaches in kids?

    Many kids experience a headache at some point during childhood. In fact, 20% of children between the ages of five and 17 experience headaches. In most cases, headaches are not serious and do not require treatment.

  • Should I worry about my child’s chronic headache?

    If your child has chronic headaches, you should speak with your pediatrician or other doctor. Chronic headaches can be debilitating and challenging to treat at home, especially if there is no clear cause. Learn about diagnostic testing options that may provide insight into treating your child’s headaches.

  • When should I worry about my child’s headache, nausea, and sensitivity?

    Nausea and sensitivity can be common symptoms that accompany a child’s headache. Discuss your child’s symptoms with your pediatrician, especially if they include fever, vision loss, and vomiting.

    Contact a physician immediately or go to the emergency room if your child experiences a headache along with muscle or limb weakness, slurred speech, balance or walking issues, inability to wake up, or sudden, extreme headache pain.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. Headaches in children and adolescents.

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Headaches in children.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Headaches.

  4. University of Rochester Medical Center. Headaches in children.

  5. University of Rochester Medical Center. Kids' headaches: The diagnosis is difficult.

By Sarah Jividen, RN
Sarah Jividen, RN, BSN, is a freelance healthcare journalist and content marketing writer at Health Writing Solutions, LLC. She has over a decade of direct patient care experience working as a registered nurse specializing in neurotrauma, stroke, and the emergency room.