What causes headaches in children?

There are a few different types of headaches and many reasons as to why they occur. Some general causes that may trigger a headache include:

  • Cold or flu
  • Stress, anxiety or depression
  • Bad posture
  • Eyesight problems
  • Skipping meals or not eating regularly
  • Using too much pain medicine (more than 3 times a week) can make headaches worse
  • Not drinking enough fluids, particularly whilst playing sports in hot weather
  • Foods they’ve eaten, such as those with preservatives, additives or caffeine
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Video games or looking at screens for a long time

What types of headaches do children get?

The most common type of headache is a tension headache, but children can also have migraines.

Tension Headaches

If your little one has a tension headache, they may describe it as a feeling of tightness in the head or neck. Younger children may want to play less and want to sleep more. A child with a tension headache may have the following signs:

  • A mild to moderate pain that does not pulsate
  • Is not usually made worse by physical activity
  • Is not accompanied by nausea or vomiting

A tension headache can last anywhere from half an hour to several days.


If you think your child has migraine symptoms, please consult your doctor.

Migraines can have a bigger effect on your child than other types of headaches. Migraines can run in families, so if you or others in your family have them, your little one may also get them. A migraine is a recurrent headache that occurs with or without aura, lasting from half an hour to 2 days. Most children with a migraine may complain of a throbbing pain on both sides of their head, and generally at the front or sides of the head (temples). It’s less common for children to feel a migraine only on one side or at the back of the head.

Did you know, that there are 2 types of migraine?

  • Migraine without aura: This is more common in children. You might notice that your child is thirsty, tired, has a change in appetite or has a change in their mood. They may not want to play because the migraine gets worse with normal day-to-day activities. They may also feel nausea or vomit, or have a sensitivity to sounds and light. 
  • Migraine with aura: An aura is difficult for children to describe, but may be more distressing than the pain. Children with an aura will most likely complain of sensations that affect their eyesight, such as blurred vision, seeing black spots, shimmering or jagged lines or distorted vision. They may also have drooping eyelids, and feel dizzy or confused. This type of migraine starts with an aura and then a headache within the first hour.

Migraines may be scary for you and your child, but there are lots of ways to help your little one feel better. If your child has any of these migraine symptoms, please consult your doctor. Read on to learn how to prevent or manage tension headaches.

Preventing your child’s headache

Try to understand what’s causing your little one’s headaches. You might find it helpful to keep a diary of when your child has a headache, to figure out what might be causing them.

To help prevent your child’s headaches, make sure they:

  • Establish regular routine- mealtimes and bedtimes
  • Stay hydrated
  • Limit screen time
  • If your child has not had a recent eye check then take them to an opticians
  • Speak to your child to find out what's worrying them if stress and anxiety is the cause

What should you do if your child has a headache?

When a headache does happen, encourage your child to:

  • Drink plenty of water
  • Get plenty of rest & try to relax
  • Try ibuprofen or paracetamol

You could try giving your little one kids pain relief medicine such as ibuprofen or paracetamol when pain starts, to help to relieve the headache. Nurofen for Children contains ibuprofen and can provide relief from headaches for children over 3 months and weighing more than 5kg.

When should you be concerned about your child's headache?

You’ll be glad to know that most headaches in children are not a sign of something more serious and can be treated at home. If you are worried about your child, if their headache happens often or is getting worse, speak to your doctor or pharmacist for advice.

Speak to your doctor about your child’s headache if:

  • Headaches won’t go away or keep coming back
  • Painkillers like ibuprofen or paracetamol don't help
  • They have throbbing pain at the front or side of their head (could be a migraine or sometimes a cluster headache)
  • They’re feeling sick, vomiting, or have a sensitivity to light or noise
  • Headaches are interfering with school work

Get an urgent GP appointment or call NHS 111 if your child has a severe headache and:

  • Other symptoms, such as arms or legs feeling numb or weak
  • Have injured their head, such as after a fall or accident (even up to 5 days after the injury)
  • Have a sore scalp
  • Have blurred or double vision
  • Have a painful jaw when eating
  • A headache that wakes them at night or a headache when they wake up in the morning
  • A headache that gets progressively worse
  • A headache triggered or made worse by coughing, sneezing or bending down
  • A headache with vomiting
  • A headache with squint or an inability to look upward.

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

  • Has a head injury
  • Has an extremely painful headache that has come on suddenly – with problems speaking or remembering things, loss of vision, feeling drowsy or confused, has a very high temperature and symptoms of meningitis or the white part of the eye is red

Also call 999 or go to A&E if your child is under 12 and has any 1 of the following:

  • A headache with vision problems
  • Difficulty speaking, swallowing, balancing or walking
  • A headache with drowsiness or a persistent lack of energy
  • A headache that starts within 5 days of a head injury

Tip to remember: Most childhood headaches will go away on their own and can be cared for at home. Trust your instincts and call your doctor if you’re worried.

All information presented on these web pages is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. In all health matters for further information or medical advice, please speak to your GP or a Pharmacist.