A headache is one of the most common complaints of children and teenagers. Fussiness, crankiness and not being able to sleep may be the only signs of head pain in children who are too young to tell you where they hurt.
There are many different types of headaches. Each type may be treated differently. A detailed history and physical exam help figure out what kind of headache your child has. All members of the family (mother, father and child, if possible) should help give the medical history.
Tension Headache - This is a less common and least serious type of headache. It happens when the muscles in the head and neck tighten and ache. Your child may say the pain feels like a tight band around the head. Emotional stress and getting too tired are the two most common causes. Family conflicts, school problems and peer pressures may add to everyday stress. Tension headaches can be a result of these pressures.
Congestion Headache - These headaches occur with viral infections (such as colds and flu) and usually stop when the illness is over. Sinus congestion and infections can cause head pain around the eyes and nose.
Medication Overuse or Analgesic Rebound Headache - This type of headache is becoming more common. When a child or teen-ager with headaches takes pain medicine too often, the headaches may become more frequent and more painful. Taking pain medicine for headaches more than twice a week for several weeks may cause this type of headache.
Headaches After a Head Injury - Headaches are common after a head injury. They are usually mild and go away within a week. Sometimes, though, the pain may occur for several weeks or months after an injury. Refer to the Helping Hand: Head Injury (HH-I-41 or HH-I-42) if the injury occurred in the last 24 to 48 hours.
Headaches with Dental Problems (such as jawbone joint problems) - This is an unusual cause of headache in children. The child may have jaw pain or discomfort, pain in the temples and a clicking sound when opening the jaw. Grinding of the teeth may cause this type of headache. A dental exam should be done.
Migraine Headache - This is a severe type of headache and is not discussed in this Helping Hand. If your child has migraine headaches, your doctor will give you more information after a thorough physical exam and medical history are done.
The best treatment for a mild, occasional headache is rest and relaxation. Giving ibuprofen (such as Motrin® or Advil®) may give your child relief. Ask your pharmacist, doctor or nurse for the right dosage. Do not give aspirin or other medicines unless directed by your child's doctor. Use heat or cold, whichever helps your child the most.
Keep a record of the headaches over a period of time. This will help the doctor decide on a plan of treatment for your child. (Use the Headache Records on pages 4 and 5.)
Take your child to an emergency room immediately if your child has:
Call your child’s doctor if any of these things occur:
Headaches in Children (PDF)
HH-I-158 6/92, Revised 3/12 Copyright 1992-2012, Nationwide Children’s Hospital