When your child is crying over a headache, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and frightened. Many parents instantly start thinking something is seriously wrong when their child is holding his or her head and crying, but the good news for worried parents is that most childhood headaches have fairly straightforward causes. While you seek relief for your child, it’s good to know what could be triggering these symptoms.
Most Headaches in Children Are From Benign Causes
If your child is struggling with a headache, getting to the underlying cause is the first step in successful treatment. Here are some causes to watch for:
- Poor water intake: One of the most common causes of headaches, particularly in kids, is poor hydration. Children rarely drink enough water, and when they are losing more fluids than they are consuming, they may get a headache.
- Diet: Food can also be a trigger for a headache, and sugar is often the greatest culprit. While some kids have specific foods that trigger headaches, blood sugar spikes and drops from sugar can also be a cause. If your child is eating a poor diet (especially too much or too little sugar) and is skipping meals, he or she may experience headaches.
- Stress: Yes, children can experience stress, and often parents are unaware of how stressed their children are feeling. If your child is facing pressure at school or from friends, it can lead to tension headaches.
- Need for glasses: Children who need glasses are often unaware that they can’t see properly. As their eyes strain to see, they can develop headaches. If you haven’t had your child’s eyes tested in a while, and he or she starts to develop headaches, it’s time for an appointment with the eye doctor.
- Insufficient sleep: Children need a minimum of 10 hours of sleep at night. If your children are routinely getting less sleep than this, then you can expect some headaches to develop.
- Oncoming illness: Sometimes a headache can indicate that your child is about to get sick. Offer plenty of fluids and healthy foods, and make sure your child is getting rest if you suspect an illness is coming.
As you can see, none of these are serious problems. To treat headaches from these issues, address the cause. Give your child better food choices, more water, more sleep or a trip to the eye doctor. Cut back on some responsibilities to lessen the stress your child is experiencing. These steps can all reduce headache pain and frequency.
Migraines Have Specific Triggers
Some headaches from poor diet or lack of sleep are mild to moderate and go away once the cause is addressed. Migraines are another story. While migraines are more common in adults than children, they can still affect kids.
According to Mayo Clinic, migraines are headaches that cause pulsating, throbbing or pounding pain that gets worse with physical exertion. They can be accompanied by nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and abdominal pain or vomiting. The pain from a migraine is typically much more severe than a common headache.
Most migraines have triggers – such as stress, specific foods, smells and even types of lighting – that sufferers can identify. Helping your child find his or her triggers and avoid those, when possible, is important when managing migraines.
More Serious Headache Causes
Sometimes, headaches are from more than just a lack of sleep or a poor diet. Children who have problems in the brain, including bleeding, abscesses or tumors, can develop headaches. Some serious infections can manifest with headaches as well. You should visit the doctor quickly if you notice symptoms like:
- Headaches that wake your child
- Headaches that are getting worse
- Headaches with persistent vomiting
- Headaches with vision changes
- Headaches with a fever or neck pain
- Headaches and a change in the child’s personality
Helping Your Child With a Headache
If your child has a headache, there are some things you can do to help. In addition to providing medication for pain, consider:
- Offering a snack or drink.
- Placing a cool washcloth on the head or back of the neck.
- Offer a sports drink to boost blood sugar, electrolytes and hydration.
- Lay your child down for a nap.
Of course, if at any time you are unsure about what to do, give your child’s doctor a call. It’s always best to get a professional opinion if you suspect something is more seriously wrong.
Dr. Merle Diamond graduated with honors from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and received her medical education from Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. She has been a part of Diamond Headache Clinic since 1989, has contributed numerous articles to the medical literature, and has lectured extensively on various headache subjects.
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The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the blog contributor’s. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Writers may have conflicts of interest, and their opinions are their own.