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Headaches in Children: Causes, types of headaches and treatment

It’s been a long day at school and your child comes home complaining of a headache. As parents, we all worry when our children complain of pain. Thankfully, serious causes of headaches are rare and headaches happen to be one of the most common types of pain in children. Headaches can have a big impact on your child’s life, so it is important to understand them.

What causes a headache in children?

There are many different types of headaches and reasons as to why they occur. Most headaches in children are usually not serious. Some general factors which may trigger a headache include:

  • cold or flu
  • stress or anxiety
  • bad posture
  • vision problems
  • skipping meals or not eating regularly
  • taking too many painkillers
  • dehydration or blood sugar changes brought on by playing sports

Types of headaches

There are are several types of headaches that may affect children, including migraines, tension-type headaches, cluster headaches, and medication-overuse headaches.

Tension Headaches

If your child has a tension headache, they may describe it as a feeling of tightness in the head or neck. It’s usually mild to moderate in severity, does not pulsate, and is not usually worsened by physical activity. It usually isn’t accompanied by nausea or vomiting and parents may find that younger children may play less and want to sleep more. It can last anywhere from half an hour to several days.


A migraine headache is usually a severe, throbbing headache that may be felt on one side of your child's head (sometimes the side may change or the pain is on both sides of the head). It can last for over 4 hours if not treated, gets worse with activity, is often accompanied by nausea, and feels like it’s pulsating (though some may complain of a dull or stabbing feeling).

Some people may have visual warning signs before a migraine headache comes on. This is called an aura. If your child has an aura before a migraine, they may say that they can see sparkling lights or describe other visual symptoms. If your child has a migraine, they may also feel nauseous and have difficulty coping with light and loud noises.

Doctors believe that migraines occur when blood vessels in the brain both open (dilate) and tighten (constrict), leading to a headache. However, the exact cause of migraines is still not understood very well.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are very rare in children but can happen. If your child has a cluster headache, they may complain of a very intense pain on only one side of the head that very often starts after they fall asleep.

They may describe it as being a sharp, stabbing pain a child with a cluster headache may also seem teary, have a blocked or a runny nose, or be restless and agitated.

Cluster headaches get their name because they often occur in bouts, for 6-12 weeks, once every year or two years, and often at the same time each year.

Medication Overuse Headaches

Medication overuse headaches may occur in some children. These headaches may happen if someone overuses painkillers to treat their headaches (usually on 15 or more days a month) or frequent use of common migraine medications (on 10 or more days a month).

Chronic Daily Headaches

A “chronic daily headache” is the name given by doctors to a headache that occurs 15 or more days every month. Chronic daily headaches can be caused by many things. They may be migraines or tension-type headaches, or they may be caused by an infection, minor head injury, or taking too many pain medications. If your child has a chronic headache, it’s best to speak with your GP to rule out any serious problems.

How to treat a headache in children

If your child has a headache, you can do the following to try and help them through it:
  • lie them down in a quiet, dark room

  • put a cool, moist cloth across their forehead or eyes

  • ask them to breathe easily and deeply

  • encourage them to have plenty of rest and sleep

  • encourage them to eat or drink something (without caffeine)

Some other natural ways to help children with headaches include relaxation techniques and even the use of a headache diary, which will also be useful to keep track of your child’s headaches and identify possible triggers. These simple steps may be enough to help your child recover.

Giving your child simple pain relief medicine such as Ibuprofen or Paracetamol can help ease their discomfort and relieve the pain of a tension-type headache. Nurofen for Children provides relief for tension-type headaches.

Make sure that you give your child the medication and dose that is suitable for their age. If you believe your child has cluster headaches, medication overuse headaches, or chronic daily headaches speak to your GP. 


When to see a doctor

Most headaches in children aren’t serious and can be treated at home. But if you are at all worried about your child’s headache, be sure to speak with your doctor or pharmacist about it.

See your doctor if your child’s headache:

  • keeps coming back
  • is accompanied by bad throbbing pain at the front or side of their head
  • is accompanied by feeling sick, vomiting, or sensitivity to light or noise
  • doesn’t respond to painkillers
  • is accompanied by other symptoms, such as arms or legs feeling numb or weak
  • is interfering with schoolwork

See the GP urgently if your child has a severe headache and their jaw hurts when eating, has blurred or double vision or their scalp feels sore.

Take your child to the A&E or call 999 if your child

  • has injured their head badly, such as after a fall or accident
  • has a headache that comes on suddenly or is extremely painful
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