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What causes headaches in children?
By the age of 7, at least 40 percent of children have had a headache. Head pain can be the result of common ailments such as colds, toothaches, and infections of the sinuses, eyes, ears, or throat. Your child may have a headache simply because he's stressed or tired or a little dehydrated. Or he may have gotten bumped on the head. In extremely rare cases, a child's throbbing head may be a sign of a brain tumor or meningitis, but keep in mind that both of these illnesses will cause other symptoms in addition to a headache.
These are the major types of headaches in young children:
- Tension headaches: This common type of headache is marked by a dull ache (rather than sharp pain) on one or both sides of the head. Sometimes it feels like a band of tightness or pressure around the head. The symptoms are often the result of stress, anxiety, or depression, but may be linked to poor posture as well. Tension headaches usually flare up at school or home under tense conditions and disappear when a child plays or relaxes.
- Migraines: These headaches tend to run in families, and they usually first appear in children between the ages of 5 and 8, though they can strike at any age. (Roughly 5 percent of 10 year olds have had at least one bout with migraines, though most of them outgrow the problem before they reach puberty.) Migraines are usually one-sided and throbbing, and they often get worse with physical exertion. If your child has a migraine, he may experience mood changes, skin pallor, fatigue, dizziness, blurred vision, food cravings or loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or fever. Some kids also see auras (often described as wavy lines, flashing lights, blind spots, or tunnel vision) before the pain hits, and some are sensitive to bright lights and noise.
- Meningitis: Headache is often the major complaint of a child who has meningitis, which happens when an inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal fluid puts pressure on the brain and decreases the circulation of the spinal fluid. Meningitis can cause high fever, repeated vomiting, loss of appetite, confusion, sleepiness, sensitivity to light, and – sometimes – a rash or an extremely stiff neck. (In a reclining position, your preschooler won't be able to bend his head toward his chest because that will cause nearly unbearable shooting pains in his head or neck.) If your child has these symptoms, call 911 or get medical care immediately.
- Brain tumor: It's extremely unlikely that your child's headache is caused by a tumor. A tumor is the culprit in only 1 of 40,000 headaches in children. Still, if your child suffers from headaches, especially if they seem to be increasing in severity, if they wake him from his sleep, or if they occur early in the morning, talk with his doctor to rule out the possibility.
When might a headache be a sign of something serious?
If your child occasionally has a mild headache but otherwise seems well, it's probably nothing to worry about. Still, the signs mentioned above — headaches that start early in the morning, that wake your child from his sleep, or that are becoming more severe or frequent – may indicate a serious underlying cause.
Talk with your child's doctor if you notice that your child has any of these symptoms, or if your child is also experiencing vision changes, weakness, or seizures. Also call your child's doctor if your child is in extreme pain with a headache or if his headaches keep him from his usual activities. While these are not necessarily signs that there's a serious problem, they do signal that your child needs medical treatment.
How will the doctor tell what's going on?
Your child's doctor will start by asking questions about your child's symptoms to try to identify the type of headache and the possible causes. She'll do a complete examination of your child. She'll take his blood pressure and other vital signs. She may do blood tests. And if she wants to rule out underlying problems, she may also order an MRI (magnetic response imaging) or a CAT scan (computerized tomography scan), which will provide her with a clearer picture of what might be going on.
What can I do about my preschooler's headaches?
Your child's doctor can help you decide, depending upon the cause and type of headaches your preschooler has, how to treat them. Of course, the best thing to do is to try to prevent them from occurring in the first place.
- Encourage your child to get enough sleep. This will help with stress. And make sure he drinks plenty of water and other non-caffeinated beverages to avoid even slight dehydration.
- If your child suffers from migraines, help him identify and avoid things that seem to set off his episodes. In addition to stress, common migraine triggers in children include certain foods and drinks (including nitrite-preserved foods such as hot dogs and lunch meat), bright or flickering lights, noise, movies or television, very heavy exercise, and too much sun. A headache diary that records your child's symptoms, the date and time of each episode, and the events leading up to the attack can be extremely valuable for determining what his triggers are.
- Do what you can to reduce stress if your child suffers from migraine or tension headaches. Find out what's bothering him and try to ease his mind. Keeping him on a regular schedule for meals and sleep might be comforting. If he headaches are debilitating and show no signs of going away, you may want to set up an appointment with a counselor or therapist to help get to the root of the problem.
- For tension headaches, you might also try teaching your preschooler relaxation techniques, like deep breathing exercises. He might enjoy listening to calming tapes or CDs (featuring the sounds of waterfall or soothing music, for example). Or you may also find that he relaxes when you sit and read to him.
- Try massaging your child's shoulders and the back of his neck, or put an ice pack on the sore spot.
- When pain strikes, you may want to give your preschooler an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. (Because of the risk of Reye's syndrome, a rare but life-threatening condition, children under 16 shouldn't take aspirin unless a doctor recommends it.) Don't give your child more than a few pills each week. Children who take too many painkillers can develop rebound headaches when the pills wear off.
- Your child's doctor can, if necessary, prescribe drugs to help with your child's headaches. Some medications can relieve severe attacks. Others can help prevent the pain before it starts.