Prof Anne MacGregor gives tips for parents on how to recognise and treat headaches in children.
Most children and teenagers get at least one headache a year. They’re often different from the headaches that adults get, so parents and healthcare professionals can fail to notice the problem.
Headaches, including migraines, tend to be much shorter in children, according to Prof MacGregor of the Centre for Neuroscience and Trauma at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry.
In children, headaches start suddenly, with the child quickly becoming pale and listless, and often feeling sick and vomiting.
Children also generally recover very quickly. “The headache can be over half an hour later, with the child feeling well and playing outside as if nothing’s happened,” Prof MacGregor says.
Children’s headaches can also affect their stomach, so tummy ache is a common complaint, she says.
Skipping lunch causes headaches in children
“In my experience, children very rarely fake headaches,” says Prof MacGregor. “Children with headaches often get them if, for example, they skip their packed lunch or they haven't had anything to drink all day.
"The best way for parents to prevent their children getting these headaches is to make sure they have regular meals and drinks, and that they get enough sleep," says Prof MacGregor. “Give children a good breakfast so that, even if they miss lunch, they’ve been set up for the day. It's also helpful to put children to bed at a fixed time each evening.”
Sport is a headache trigger for children
Sport can trigger children's headaches, probably because of dehydration and the effect on blood sugar. “Drinking lots of water and sucking glucose tablets (available from pharmacies and supermarkets) before and during sport can help. So can a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack, as well as meals,” says Prof MacGregor.
Headaches and childhood emotional problems
Sometimes, headaches can be the result of emotional problems. “They can come on during times of stress, like being bullied at school or because of anxiety over parents splitting up,” says Prof MacGregor. “Parents often think their child is fine, that they’re adjusting to the divorce and that they like their parent's new partner. Sometimes, however, the child is not fine and their unhappiness is expressing itself as headaches.”
Keep a headache diary
It can be helpful to keep a diary of your child's headaches. If your child is old enough, they can keep their own diary. This is a good way of working out specific headache triggers.
Keep a record of when the headaches happen. Also record any event that’s different from the normal routine or that might be relevant. This could be a missed meal, sports activity or a late night, or an emotionally upsetting incident, such as a stressful exam or an argument with friends or parents.
After a few months, look through the diaries together with your child to see if there’s a pattern of triggers that could be causing the headaches.
Download a headache diary from The Migraine Trust
Once you’ve identified possible causes, get your child to avoid them one at a time over the next few months to see if this prevents the headaches.
Headache self-help tips for children
Often, simple steps will be enough to help your child through a headache or migraine attack:
- Lie them down in a quiet, dark room.
- Put a cool, moist cloth across their forehead or eyes.
- Get them to breathe easily and deeply.
- Encourage them to sleep, as this speeds recovery.
- Encourage them to eat or drink something (but not drinks containing caffeine).
If you think your child needs painkillers, start the medicine as soon as possible after the headache has begun. Paracetamol and ibuprofen are both safe and work well for children with headaches. The syrups are easier for children to take than tablets. Alternatively, try Migraleve, a pharmacy remedy that treats migraine and is suitable for children aged over 12.
When to see a doctor for your child's headaches
As with adults, most headaches in children aren’t a serious health problem. They can be treated at home with pharmacy remedies and avoided by making sure children get enough food, drink and sleep.
But don’t delay consulting a doctor or pharmacist if you’re worried about your child’s headaches, says Prof MacGregor. “I’d advise parents to seek help if their child hasn’t been helped by painkillers or if the headaches are interfering with schoolwork. It’s important for these children to get the all-clear from a doctor.”