When my child first said his head hurt, I didn’t think he had a headache. I figured the active kid had bumped his noggin on something, and that the pain would disappear after a while. But when the usually active boy remained listless and lethargic, limp and unfocused, I knew it was the real thing, and that he needed help.
Just like adults, children can get headaches. In fact, headaches are becoming more common in children of school-going age, and by the time they are 18 years old, up to 90% of teenagers will have had at least one headache. While a headache or two once in a stretch of time could be passed off as being caused by environmental factors (second-hand smoke, loud music etc), what if your child’s headaches seem to be the norm, rather than the exception in their life?
Dr Wendy Liew, a paediatrician (child neurology) at the SBCC Baby & Child Clinic (a member of Healthway Medical Group), tells us that younger children are just as susceptible to headaches as older ones. In addition,
the number of children who have recurring headaches increases with age. In children aged four to six years, it is 4.5%. By the time the children are between 16 and 18 years old, up to 28% of them will have complained about getting regular headaches.
Dr Liew shares more about childhood headaches below. If your little one is also telling you “Mama, my head hurts”, read on.
Are childhood headaches just part of growing pains?
Headaches in children can be caused by a variety of reasons. In most cases, the causes are simple and may be due to reasons such as lack of sleep, stress, hunger, fever, or uncontrolled allergic rhinitis. They can also get the same types of headaches as adults, such as migraines and tension headaches.
What are the main causes of headaches in children?
The causes are as follows:
(1) Acute illnesses such as the common cold, allergic rhinitis (sensitive nose), or ear infections
(2) Head injury
(3) Sleep deprivation, hunger, certain foods or drinks, dehydration, heat
(4) Genetic predisposition — if there is a family history of headaches or migraines, the child will have a higher risk of developing them too
(5) Rare causes: brain infection (meningitis) or brain tumour
What’s the best way to prevent my child from having headaches?
The first step is to know the triggers or cause of the headaches. Triggers vary from child to child. Keep a headache diary. This can be helpful in identifying your child’s headache triggers. Once the triggers are identified, a change in lifestyle — such as maintaining good sleep habits, ensuring adequate hydration, avoiding triggers — will help in preventing headaches.
How can I tell if my child is genuinely having a headache, or just faking it?
Young children express pain differently compared to older children. Younger children are not able to describe the symptoms and usually react to pain or discomfort by crying, or by being clingy and more irritable. Older children on the other hand are able to localise and describe the type of headaches that they experience.
In general, if the pain is significant, it will affect their daily activities, as well as their ability to eat, sleep, and play. If the pain is mild, children may be able to ignore or reduce the severity of pain through distractions.
How long do headaches usually last?
This depends on the causes of the headaches. Headaches can last from less than hour to days in some individuals.
What is the best home remedy to deal with my child’s headache?
Most of the time, over-the-counter medications such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can help to alleviate your child’s headaches. In some headache types, such as migraine, if headaches are frequent, more specific medications aimed at preventing headaches may be prescribed. Your child’s paediatrician will be able to advise you accordingly.
When should I bring my child to the doctor?
Although the occasional headache is common, headaches can also be the symptom for a more serious condition. Seek medical attention if any of the conditions apply:
(1) the headaches are recurrent, or increasing in severity
(2) the headaches wake your child up from sleep
(3) your child has recurrent vomiting or changes to vision
(4) your child’s behaviour changes
(5) the headaches are accompanied by fever and a stiff neck
(6) there are persistent headaches following a head injury
(7) your child has seizures or loss of consciousness
In these circumstances, your child’s doctor may need to order specialised tests such as neuroimaging, blood tests, or a lumbar puncture.
Will the headaches go away eventually on their own when my child is older, or will they worsen?
As children gets older, they become better at recognising and avoiding their headache triggers. They are also able to tell if they are about to get a headache, and ask for medications. Hence headaches become better managed.