Cincinnati Children's Blog

Common Triggers of Headaches in Children and Teens

Common Triggers of Headaches in Children and Teens

When you see your child lying on the couch, holding his head and complaining of a headache, it can be concerning. Headaches, which can even occur in infants, are a common problem for young people of all ages. In fact, about 10% of school-aged children and 15-27% of teens experience them from time to time. Globally, migraine is the second most common neurological condition across all ages, while it is number one from age 10 to 40 years old.

The most common type of recurrent headaches in children and adolescents is a migraine. Migraine is a genetic neurological condition with headache being one of its manifestations. The pain of headaches can be triggered by a number of different things:

Most Common Triggers of Headaches in Kids

  • Inadequate hydration. Not drinking enough fluids is one of the biggest causes of headaches. This is especially true when the weather gets warmer and kids become more active outside and lose fluid through sweating. If this is the case, the cure might be as simple as having your child drink more water.
  • Diet. Does your child eat regular meals? Skipping one meal, like breakfast, can trigger a headache. It’s also important to make sure that your child is eating a well-balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Withdrawal from too much caffeine can cause a headache as well.
  • Sleep. Kids in middle and high school typically need at least 10-12 hours of sleep a night. Not sleeping enough at night can cause a headache. And getting less than 10 hours isn’t enough to feel well-rested.
  • Stress. We all experience stress from time to time, and children and teens are no exception. If your child is under a lot of pressure from school, or experiencing big changes at home like a divorce or a big move, a headache can result.
  • Vision problems. If your child is unable to see what’s happening at the front of the classroom, he might be straining his eyes to see far away, which can result in a eye strain. This can sometimes be interpreted as a headache, although it is distinct from recurrent headaches. A vision test can give you a better understanding of whether or not your child’s eyestrain is being caused by vision problems.
  • Family history. Your child is more likely to have headaches if a parent gets them as well.

Treating Your Child’s Headaches

If your child has a headache, try giving her water or a sports drink and over-the-counter ibuprofen. Follow the instructions on the package for the appropriate dosage and do not give it to your child more than three times in a week. If it persists for a few days or worsens, call your child’s pediatrician.

Fortunately the majority of headaches in children are not a cause for alarm. However, there are a few instances which require a little more investigation. If your child’s headaches have become more frequent or severe, if it wakes him up almost every day in the morning or the middle of the night, or if the headache causes vomiting, it’s best to have your child evaluated by your pediatrician.

He or she will perform a physical exam and decide if any tests need to be done. Brain MRIs and CT scans are rarely needed. If your pediatrician suspects a migraine, she might refer your child to a neurologist who is familiar with medications to help prevent and treat them.

And if your child or teen is suffering from chronic headaches and migraines, some of our researchers authored a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association which found that adding cognitive behavioral therapy to treatment of pediatric migraines improves relief of symptoms.

To learn more about our Headache Center, or to make an appointment, contact the Division of Neurology at 513-636-4222. 

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