Headaches in Children: How to Help

April 17, 2015

Headaches in children can be hard to deal with, but there are a few things you can to do help heal the hurt.

There are few things worse than seeing your little one not feeling his best. Headaches in children can be especially hard to deal with because there are so many different causes and types of aches. Where do you begin?

Here are some tips on how to treat headaches at home and when you should call the doctor.

Headache Causes
As you likely know from your own headaches, a lot of things can cause head pain. According to Dr. Jack Gladstein, the director of the Pediatric Headache Clinic and Pediatric Hospitalist Program at the University of Maryland Medical Center, some of the most common causes of headaches in children include stress, school, hunger, thirst and a change in sleep patterns. Other triggers might include vision problems, low blood sugar, food allergies or sensitivities, neck alignment issues or blood pressure problems. "Headaches are commonly present in a variety of illnesses, including fevers, flu and sinus infections," says Dr. Jonathan Birch, a naturopathic physician at Purety Family Medical Clinic. "Given that, in the absence of other illnesses, headaches are fairly rare in young children -- but as normal stressors of life increase with age, headaches become more common." While migraines are not common in children, they are possible, so if your child complains of nausea, dizziness or vision disturbances, it could be a migraine.

Soothing Your Child's Headache
When it comes to treating headaches at home, you might need to try a few things to find something that works in your child's particular case. "Depending on the headache, a hydrocollator [wet] heating pad applied to the forehead or back of head can help to loosen up sinus tension as well as neck tension," says Dr. Birch, who adds that a cold pack may help with headaches brought on by fever. If that doesn't have any effect, Dr. Birch advises, "Make sure your child gets rest, and if the pain is unmanageable, then the proper dose of ibuprofen for their weight usually does the trick."

Dr. Gladstein agrees: "Get a good medicine -- take it early in the headache to try to knock it out." For headaches in children, your pediatrician might suggest ibuprofen, acetaminophen or naproxen sodium, all of which are available over-the-counter and in generic form. There have been many recent changes to the dosing recommendations, so it's important to verify with your pediatrician or pharmacist how much medicine to give your child. If your child has been diagnosed with migraines, the National Headache Foundation (NHF) notes that almotriptan and rizatriptan are two medications that are FDA-approved for children. Always follow your pediatrician's recommendations, check the label or talk to your pharmacist.

When to Call the Doctor
"Routine headaches are usually not anything to worry about," says Dr. Birch says. However, he recommends getting immediate medical attention for your child if you suspect meningitis -- symptoms include severe headache, stiff neck, fever, vomiting and light sensitivity. Also call the doctor if your child has a headache accompanied with neurological problems, like double vision or muscle weakness, a severe headache after a head injury or she tells you it's "the worst headache ever."

Even if it's not a medical emergency, your pediatrician can help. "If headaches cause distress to child and or family, it is worth one visit to the primary care provider to figure out if it is migraine or something else," says Dr. Gladstein. Once a diagnosis is made, he recommends getting a referral to a headache specialist -- particularly if your primary care provider is not sure of the diagnosis, doesn't know how to treat the headache, your child is missing a lot of school, medications don't help or if your child has complex medical issues.

Staying Headache-Free
To successfully control and manage headaches, the NHF says to ensure your child is getting balanced, nutritious meals -- especially breakfast -- sleeps well, exercises and avoids food or environmental triggers. Tension headaches are almost always caused by emotional stress, and migraines can be aggravated by stress, so if your child gets these types of headaches, it's vital you find and alleviate the stressors. Find out if there's something new going on at school or with your child's friends. If your child seems to have frequent headaches, Dr. Birch recommends you start a diary and keep track of the time of day the headache begins, what and when your child's meals were before the headache began, what makes it better or worse, pain level on a scale from 1 to 10 and what your child was doing when the headache started. "A lot of times, this can uncover the cause," he says. With help, your child can get a diagnosis and treatment plan so he or she can feel better and get back to living each day to its full potential.

Nancy J Price is an Arizona-based mother of four, as well as a writer, editor and web developer. One of the original co-founders of SheKnows.com, she now writes for several websites, including Myria and Click Americana.

* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan. Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.

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