Headaches are unpleasant in children but rarely have a serious cause. It can be very difficult for parents to know when to seek medical care.
Common benign headaches
Most headaches are benign (harmless) and do not need medical assessment. Fever and viral infections (e.g. flu, head cold or throat infection) are very frequent causes. Most settle with time and paracetamol.
Migraines are also common in children and often run in families. The pain is usually throbbing and on only one side of the head. The child may also have nausea or vomiting and be sensitive to light or noise. Episodes usually last 2 -12 hours and generally improve with sleep.
Tension-type headaches are caused by tightening of the muscles in the neck and scalp. They cause a dull, aching pain which often lasts all day and feels like a tight band around the head.
Other benign causes are excess caffeine (e.g. from energy drinks), lack of sleep, too much sun, overuse of pain medication, menstruation and medicines.
Rare, but serious headaches
Serious headaches are rare. They include infections around the brain (meningitis), head injuries and brain tumours. Contact your GP if your child has unexplained, severe, frequent or persistent headaches or:
· Seizures or a recent head injury
· Neck pain or stiffness
· Unusual sleepiness or difficulty standing
· Headache waking the child from sleep or present on waking in the morning
· Skin rash, persistent vomiting or disturbed vision
A headache diary can help your GP assess the problem. Write down when headaches occur, their severity, how long they last, any triggers and other symptoms.
More info: Royal Children’s Hospital fact sheet