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Headache

Headache; child; youth; migraine; sun; stroke; meningitis; vision; eye; fever; injury; head; cluster; vomit; drowsiness; tension; pain; stress;

Headache is very common in older children and adults. Young children rarely complain of a headache even when it seems obvious that they have one. There are many causes of headaches, and how they need to be managed depends on the cause and how often they happen.

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Symptoms of headaches

  • The main symptom of a headache is the pain, which can be one sided or on both sides, at the front or the back of the head, or on the side around the jaw.
  • Children are often not good at saying where the pain is, but they may be able to put their hand on the sorest part.
  • Young children may show they have a headache by being irritable, sleepy, wanting to stay away from bright light, vomiting and crying.

Causes of headaches

Causes of headaches in children include:

  • fever (many illnesses which cause a fever have a headache as part of the picture)
  • ear, nose, throat or sinus infections
  • infections of the brain or around the brain (meningitis, encephalitis)
  • injuries to the brain, head or neck (bangs, concussion, heat exhaustion or too much sun)
  • migraine (which can happen to even quite young children)
  • vision or eye problems
  • stress (less common in children than adults).

Headaches from fever

  • A fever is part of many illnesses, most commonly viral infections.
  • With a fever the blood vessels in the whole body dilate (get wider).
  • Dilated blood vessels in the scalp and around the brain cause pain - headache.
  • Lowering the fever usually makes the headache feel better.
  • It is very important to know what is causing the fever, in case other treatment is also needed.
  • For mild illnesses, paracetamol which reduces the fever, often helps the headache (see 'Using paracetamol or ibuprofen'). Do not give paracetamol or ibuprofen to a child who is unwell and vomiting. 
  • See a doctor as soon as possible if your child:
    • has severe pain
    • is unwell
    • is vomiting
    • has a stiff neck
    • is pale or flushed
    • has spots or a rash
    • complains of pain in other parts of the body as well as a headache.
     

Ear, nose, throat and sinus infections

  • Infections in these parts of the body are often felt as headaches, partly due to the fever.
  • Sinusitis can be a cause of headaches that keep coming back.
  • With sinusitis, the child may also be tender (sore to touch) over the cheeks or forehead.
  • See 'Sinusitis', 'Middle ear infections', 'Tonsilitis' for more information about each of these topics.

Infections around the brain

  • Meningitis, which is a bacterial or sometimes viral infection around the brain, can cause severe headache.
  • Usually the child is also unwell, with a fever, stiff neck, irritability, vomiting or refusing food.
  • Children with these signs need to be seen by a doctor urgently.
  • Encephalitis, which can also cause all of the symptoms listed above, is usually a viral infection of the brain, and can be part of many viral infections, eg mumps.
    • Encephalitis usually does not need treatment, but it can be difficult to tell that it is not meningitis so the child needs to be seen by a doctor.
  • See 'Meningitis' for more information.

Head injuries

See the topic 'Head injuries' 

Too much sun

  • Staying too long in the sun, including suffering from heat stress or sunstroke, can cause a severe headache.
  • It is important to get out of the sun, have something to drink, and rest.
  • If the person does not feel a lot better within 15 minutes or so, he needs to be seen by a doctor.

Encourage your child to always wear a hat when he or she is going to be out in the sunshine.

Migraine

  • Migraine is the most common cause of repeated headaches even in young children.
  • The headache is usually worse on one side of the head than the other, the child will often feel sick or vomit, and there may be a warning sign that the headache is coming, such as a change in vision (blurred vision, flashing lights).
  • Often the headache goes after the child has a sleep.
  • The child is quite well in between attacks.
  • Some children, particularly young ones, do not say they have a headache, but will complain of tummy pain.
  • Often other family members also have migraines.
  • Paracetamol or ibuprofen at the beginning of the headache may help, but sleep is often the best treatment once the headache starts.
  • If migraine headaches are happening often, check with your doctor to see if something can be used to prevent the headaches.
  • Note: sometimes vision problems can trigger migraine headaches.
  • See the topic 'Migraine' for more information.

Vision or eye problems

  • Children who have trouble focussing their eyes so that they can see school work will sometimes complain of headaches.
  • These headaches tend to get worse during the day, or at night when the child is tired, and often go away on weekends.
  • If your child has this sort of headache, and perhaps other signs of eyesight (vision) problems (such as screwing up the eyes, closing one eye to see more clearly, rubbing eyes), you need to get their eyes checked.

Stress headaches

  • Children can have headaches because of stress, things going wrong in their lives, such as bullying or family violence.
  • Before deciding that the cause of the headache is stress, always check for other reasons first.
  • If the headache is caused by stress, it is important to deal with the cause of the stress as well as treating the headache (paracetamol and rest may help in the meantime).
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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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