Why do children get headaches?

The most common causes of headache are tiredness, stress and infections, such as sinusitis. In the case of migraines, some food types, eyesight problems or dehydration can be triggers.

Headache can also be caused by pain in another part of the head, such as a tooth, an ear or the neck. Other reasons for a headache or fever in children are:

  • A viral infection such as a cold or flu
  • Pain and pressure felt around the nose and eyes (sinuses) may be caused by allergies, a cold or flu
  • Ear infections
  • Dehydration caused by not drinking enough fluids, especially whilst exercising or during hot weather

When to take your child to see a doctor for a headache

Children have headaches just as adults do. Headaches are common and are very rarely a sign of a more serious illness. Most can be treated with simple painkillers, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol, and will go away on their own.

Sometimes younger children might not be able to describe their symptoms clearly. When your child has a headache, see a doctor if you notice these signs:

  • A headache that keeps coming back
  • Painkillers don’t help or the headache gets worse after taking medicine
  • Your child complains of a throbbing pain at the front or side of their head
  • They vomit or feel sick, and find light or noise painful

Get an urgent GP appointment or call 111 if your child has any of these signs:

  • Jaw pain when eating
  • Blurred or double vision or a headache with a squint or the inability to look upward
  • Sore scalp
  • Numbness or weakness in the arms or legs
  • A headache that wakes them at night, starts first thing in the morning or one that gets progressively worse
  • A headache triggered or worsened by coughing, sneezing or bending
  • A headache with vomiting

Please see section below for more signs when to see a doctor immediately or call 111

Whether your child’s headache is caused by a cold, flu or something else, cuddles and comfort along with over-the-counter medicine, to relieve pain and fever, will help them feel better.

What other signs should I watch for?

If your child is under 12 years old or has a severe headache, it’s important to know what other symptoms to look for. Take your child immediately to a doctor or call 111 if they also complain of: 

  • jaw pain when eating
  • blurred or double vision
  • a sore scalp
  • other symptoms, such as numbness or weakness in the arms or legs
  • a headache that wakes them at night
  • a headache when they wake up in the morning
  • a headache that gets worse
  • a headache bought on, or made worse by coughing, sneezing or bending down
  • a headache with vomiting
  • a headache with a squint (where the eyes point in different directions) or they can’t look upward

Could it be a migraine?

Vomiting, dizziness, tummy aches, crying, irritability and wanting to stay in a dark room can be signs of a migraine in pre-school children. Migraine is a recurrent headache, sometimes accompanied by strange sensations called an aura (affects vision, causes tingling or light sensitivity) that may last from 30 minutes to 48 hours. Migraines often run in families. The most common migraine triggers in children are:

  • Too little sleep
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Skipped meals
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Warm weather or dehydration
  • Bright light and loud noises such as those experienced when playing video games.

Migraines in children can be treated with a pain reliever such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, but if this does not relieve the pain, it’s important to see your doctor.

Key Takeaways

Fortunately, headaches in children are common and aren’t usually anything serious. Remember to pay attention when your child has a headache, making sure you see a doctor if your child’s headache worsens or occurs often, is accompanied by vomiting, blurred vision, or was brought on by a bump to the head.