Headaches are one of the most common complaints in children and adolescents. By age 18, 90 percent of kids have experienced a headache. Before age 12, the incidence of headaches is equal among boys and girls. But after age 12, headaches are more common in girls.
There are two types of headache, characterized by what causes them:
A primary headache occurs when something inside the brain causes the headache. Types of primary headache include:
A secondary headache occurs when something acts on the brain to cause the headache. Causes of secondary headache include:
While headache symptoms in children aren’t always “classic,” these are what to look for:
A migraine headache is the most common type of headache in children and teens. It causes moderate-to-severe pain that:
A tension headache is the second most common type of headache in youth. It causes mild-to-moderate pain that:
Cluster headaches are very rare in children, they cause a sharp pain that:
Using over-the-counter (OTC) medications is often all that is needed to treat secondary headaches in children. You may have limited success using OTC meds to treat primary headaches. It is important not to overuse pain relievers for more than two days per week since overuse can actually cause headaches. Other pain relief options include:
The OTC drugs ibuprofen and naproxen sodium are more effective than acetaminophen at reducing migraine-associated pain. Some prescription triptan medications can be used safely, and there is a prescription nasal spray approved to treat migraines in children.
It is also important to try and prevent migraines. Experts recommend keeping a calendar or headache diary to record when headaches occur and what may trigger them. For example:
Other general prevention tips for migraines include:
As with a migraine, reach for ibuprofen and naproxen sodium rather than acetaminophen to reduce headache pain.
Preventing tension headaches with prescription medicines may not be as effective, though your child’s provider may try them if the potential benefit outweighs the risk. Another prevention approach is teaching methods to alleviate stress and anxiety, including biofeedback and relaxation exercises.
When your child experiences a tension headache, they may get relief by:
If your child tells you they have the worst headache of their life, seek care urgently. While unlikely, they could be experiencing a brain hemorrhage. Other signs that your child needs to see a provider for a headache evaluation include:
If your child experiences frequent headaches, talk to their pediatrician for support and advice. If you need a pediatrician, contact the UCLA Division of General Pediatrics or request an appointment by calling 310-825-0867.