Headaches: Why Do Kids Get Them and How Can We Help?

Headaches are generally a benign pain that children and teens have to deal with just like adults. However, the pain could be a sign of a more serious issue, so understanding symptoms is important.

Back to school can mean a increase in stress and those pesky headaches. But parents aren’t the only ones having headaches and migraines. Children and teens have them, too. It’s a very common type of pain, which can happen for various reasons.

Types of Headaches in Children


Just like adults, children can experience four types of head pain, and being aware of your child’s symptoms can be a great help in determing diagnosis and obtaining treatment.


A throbbing, pulsating, or pounding type of pain, migraines typically get worse with exertion. Exposure to light and sound can also worsen a migraine. Many times, migraines couple with nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain, too. Children are more likely to suffer from migraines in the late afternoon,  but the headache will rarely exceed four hours.

Tension-type Headaches

The muscles in the head and neck tighten up with tension-type headaches. This pressing pain is usually accompanied by nonpulsating pain on both sides of the head, which doesn’t worsen with physical activity. Tension-type headaches aren’t accompanied by nausea and vomiting, unlike migraines. These headaches can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several days.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are episodic; they can occur several times a day or sporadically every other day. Characterized by a sharp, stabbing pain on the side of the head, they can be accompanied by a runny nose, congestion, restlessness, and agitation. They’re uncommon in children under the age of 12.

Chronic Daily Headache

If a child is having headaches more than 15 days out of the month for more than three months, doctors refer to this as chronic daily headache, or CDH. They’re numerous possible reasons why CDH happens: Infection, injury, and even certain medications can cause CDH.

Causes of Headaches in Children

There are numerous reasons why a headache can happen. For instance, dehydration is a common cause. Young, active kids may be out in the sun all day playing sports or enjoying warm weather. In this case, simply drinking more water will help.

Malnourishment can also cause headaches. Kids should not skip meals, especially breakfast. Poor diet habits, such as consuming lots of caffeine and chocolate, can cause headaches as well. Eating healthy portions of fruits and vegetables and staying away from foods heavy with preservatives and nitrates is desirable.

Illness and infection, including ear, nose, throat, and sinus infections, can lead to headaches, as can vision problems. Straining to see the board at school or spending too much time looking at a screen, or listening to loud music, can play a role. Other common causes include:

  • Lack of sleep
  • High stress levels 
  • Hormonal changes
  • Menstruation
  • Long car rides
  • Certain medications
  • Head injury
  • Genetic predisposition.

For Parents: What to Do

Adolescence is the time when new, severe headaches peak, so they aren’t always a cause for concern. However, it’s important to find out as much information about the child’s pain and any other symptoms they may be experiencing.

Administering a safe, recommended dose of ibuprofen with water is the first line of defense for treating a headache at home. The child shouldn’t be taking ibuprofen more than three times a week, though.

If the head pain seems to persist for multiple days, or simply worsens, you should take your child to the doctor. Headaches and migraines can be signs pointing to a more serious medical issue, so it’s important to let a doctor evaluate your child.

Pay close attention to your child if they seem to be having chronic headaches accompanied by other distinct symptoms. Mood swings, nausea, weakness, difficulty walking, neck stiffness – these are all signs that the child should be taken to a doctor.

Updated on: 04/09/18