What is a headache?

A headache is defined as a pain that occurs anywhere in the head or neck region. They are more common among older children and teenagers. Although headaches can be concerning to a parent, they are often not associated with serious medical problems. Children, like adults, get the same type of headaches, and they may even be hereditary, meaning if you as a parent have headaches or migraines, it is possible that your children will also have them.

What are the different types of headaches?

  • Tension Headache – This type of headache is usually a result of a stressor, using computers or playing video games for long periods of time. The pain is often constant, and is found around the front and sides of the head (feels like a tight band around the head). It is a dull and aching kind of pain. This is the most common headache in children. These headaches often recur.
  • Cluster Headache – This type of headache is more painful than a tension headache. The pain is described as a sharp, stabbing pain, found on one side of the head and lasts anywhere from 15 minutes up to 3 hours. They are often associated with watery eyes, congestion, runny nose, or restless. These headaches occur in episodes, and there can be a large amount of time between these episodes, like years.
  • Migraine Headache – Usually migraines are seen in teenagers and commonly run in families. The pain is usually behind the eye, or generalized around the whole head. These headaches are associated with an aura (a feeling that a headache is coming on), light or noise sensitivity. They are often triggered by stress, sleep deprivation or menstruation. The pain in this type of headache can be a pounding, throbbing or dull, steady pain.

What causes a headache?

Headaches can be triggered by a number of things, but the most common culprits in children are:

  • Dental & jaw problems
  • Overtiredness
  • Hunger
  • Infections – like the common cold, flu, ear or sinus infections

Other conditions that may cause a headache include, but are not limited to:

  • Medication side effect
  • Food sensitivity, or allergy – nitrates, for example, is a food additive that can cause headaches, also caffeine found in soda, chocolate, teas and coffee.
  • Seasonal allergies
  • Emotional factors – like stress or anxiety from school, home events
  • Sinus irritation
  • Head injury – a minor or major bump or bruise can cause a headache – be sure to seek medical attention for this one
  • Genetic predisposition – runs in families, especially migraines

Very rare conditions that may cause a headache are:

  • Brain abscess
  • Brain bleed (aneurysm)
  • Brain tumor

These less common causes of headache are often accompanied by other signs and symptoms, like dizziness, a stiff neck, vision problems, altered or slurred speech, vomiting, nausea, confusion, lack of coordination and/or weakness in a part of the body.

How is a headache diagnosed?

A headache is diagnosed by seeing your doctor or nurse practitioner. They will take a detailed medical history and perform a physical exam on your child. They will ask you the following questions:

  • Describe the type of pain.
  • Where is the pain located?
  • How long does the pain last?
  • When is the onset of pain, does it correspond to any time of the day (morning, etc)?
  • Is there anything that makes the pain better or worse? Does any treatment help the pain?

If necessary, they may request that your child have a CT (computerized tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imagining). These scans take a detailed picture of your child’s brain, and helps to diagnose more serious causes of headaches. Another test that may be performed is a lumbar puncture. This would be ordered if the doctor suspected a serious infection that was causing the headache.

What are the treatments for headaches?

There are a few different things you can do at home to help your child with a headache. If you think they may be hungry, give them something to eat (make sure to avoid foods with caffeine). A rest or a nap may help. Over the counter pain medications may also be useful, like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Do NOT give your child aspirin.

When to see your doctor or nurse practitioner?

It’s best to see your doctor or nurse practitioner if you child experiences a headache and:

  • Had a head injury
  • If the headache is getting worse or more frequent
  • Affecting your child’s regular day to day activities, like school playing, eating, or sleeping
  • No improvement with home remedies or over the counter medications

If your child has a headache and any of the following, please seek medical attention immediately by calling 911 or visiting your nearest emergency room:

  • Dizziness
  • Loss of consciousness or fainting
  • Stiff neck
  • High fever
  • Vision problems
  • Altered or slurred speech
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Lack of coordination
  • Weakness in a part of the body.


– Dr. Christina Cesareo and Dr. G Paul Dempsey

Want to talk to our pediatricians about your child’s headaches? Check out our Medical Consultation Services.

[Featured image: Patrick Denker]


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One thought on “Headaches

Aadam says:

Great post and helpful information. Thank you for sharing. Thank you so much Dr. Christina.

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