Feb 6, 2018, 9:04:00 AM CST Apr 24, 2020, 11:47:39 AM CDT

What causes headaches in children?

See five common headache triggers in children and how to avoid them

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Little girl holding her head showing discomfort Little girl holding her head showing discomfort

Headaches in children of all ages may be more common than you think. Approximately 40% of children experience headaches by age 7 and 75% of children will experience a headache by age 15.

Often, a child’s headaches are incorrectly thought to be related to sinus or vision problems, frequently delaying treatment. Symptoms of headaches can also be difficult to spot. Because young kids may not be able to communicate what’s wrong, you may notice they stop playing, avoid light or noise, or just want to lie down when they develop a headache.

What types of headaches can kids get?

Kids can get the same types of headaches as adults, including:

  • Migraines, which cause moderate to severe pain and often nausea and vomiting
  • Tension headaches, which may be related to tight muscles and increased stress
  • Cluster headaches or frequent episodes of intense pain around an eye that can occur over many days
  • Chronic daily headaches that occur on at least 15 days of the month

“It’s important to know how to recognize the different types of headaches,” says Tonia Sabo, M.D., Pediatric Neurologist at the Children’s Health℠ Headache Clinic, Medical Director of the Neuro-Concussion program and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. “Knowing what type of headache your child is suffering from, and what is causing that headache, can help you treat it and prevent it from occurring in the future.”

To help prevent migraines and headaches, Dr. Sabo encourages you to get to know your child’s “headache triggers.”

What causes headaches in children?

Many children experience headaches after being exposed to a trigger. By avoiding or recognizing triggers, you can help stop headaches before they start. The most common headache triggers in children include hormonal changes, certain foods, stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation.

Hormones and headaches

Headaches caused by hormonal changes are more likely in teen or pre-teen girls who are going through puberty. These headaches may be cyclical, occurring around the same time in the girl’s menstrual cycle.

Foods that trigger headaches

Certain food additives, especially in processed foods, are common headache triggers. These additives may include:

  • MSG
  • Caffeine
  • Tyramine
  • Nitrates
  • Nitrites
  • Sulfites

Each child may be sensitive to different foods, so you should pay attention to what your child eats before a headache starts.

Stress headaches

Just like in adults, stress can cause headaches in children. Children may feel pressure to perform in school or sports that can cause stress. Stress can keep kids from taking care of their bodies, leading to headaches.

“We talk about life balance with teens in my clinic,” says Dr. Sabo. “They put a lot of stress on themselves.”

Anxiety and headaches

Children who experience anxiety and depression tend to have more headaches than other children. These conditions can be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy and medicines.

Sleep deprivation headache

Sleep deprivation affects many aspects of a child’s health, even causing headaches. It works the other way around too, headaches wake children up and cause sleep deprivation. Consult your child’s physician if headaches are interrupting sleep.

How to prevent headaches in kids

When eating or sleeping patterns are thrown off, it may cause headaches or make them more frequent. Dr. Sabo suggests these tactics for preventing headaches in children:

  • Enforce regular bedtimes, even for teens
  • Don’t allow kids or teens to use screens an hour before bed
  • Encourage regular physical activity to help relieve stress and anxiety
  • Use stress management techniques to reduce anxiety and stress
  • Ensure kids eat healthy foods and do not skip meals
  • Give kids a reusable water bottle to keep with them to prevent dehydration
  • Keep a headache journal including activities and foods before the headache starts to identify triggers
  • Teach kids the importance of wellness, including healthy diet, regular exercise and quality sleep

How to treat headaches in kids

When your child does have a headache, you can often treat the headache with over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen, rest, water and a healthy snack. If headaches are severe, you may need to see your physician for prescription medicines for your child’s headaches.

If your child’s headaches wake them up, cause vomiting or prevent them from functioning in school, you should see your child’s physician to help uncover the cause of and treat headaches and migraines.

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Most children experience headaches after being exposed to a trigger. Learn the different triggers and tips to prevent headaches in kids via @Childrens. Click to tweet.

Learn more

The Children’s Health Headache Clinic offers expert, multidisciplinary care for children coping with headaches and migraines. Learn more about our headache program and services.

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