Headache Headaches

Kids get headaches for lots of reasons, just like us grown-ups, but they can’t always describe what hurts in ways we understand. So how can you tell when it’s worry time? What’s the difference between a headache that needs rest, a mild pain reliever and lots of TLC, and one that deserves medical attention?

Headaches are a common symptom of many childhood ills, including colds and flu, ear infections, and lots of those vague viral syndromes. They can be the result of a minor head bonk, dehydration, certain food additives, stress and anxiety (yup, kiddos get tension headaches, too), even a family predisposition.

Rarely, a severe headache can indicate something more serious and is a warning sign that screams, “pay attention!” Here are some key differences:

Minor headaches last a few hours or less and will go away with acetaminophen or ibuprofen and fluids. You’d be surprised how many times kids complain of a headache, only to have it disappear when they’re reminded to pound some water. Even frequent common headaches can often be controlled when you up your child’s water intake.

Minor headaches shouldn’t immobilize your munchkin. Most kiddos with a headache will slow down and whine about it, but they won’t be incapacitated. A common headache is NOT accompanied by high fever, vomiting, stiff neck, or confusion.

Signs that you should seek quick medical attention for your child include …

A headache that worsens and interrupts activity for more than 4 hours.

A headache that doesn’t respond to OTC medicines.

A headache accompanied by high fever, persistent vomiting, or stiff neck.

A headache accompanied by neurological symptoms like blurred vision or confusion.

A headache that comes on suddenly and violently.

Frequent, repeated headaches (more than once a week). 

Bottom line, headaches in kids are usually nothing to worry about and respond quickly to simple remedies. Occasionally they’re more serious. Now you know the difference.


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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.


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One response to “Headache Headaches”

  1. mat

    Like you mentioned, kids can get headaches for the same reason as adults. The majority of headaches come from the neck. That being said, try a small size neck pillow for a child; even a travel pillow.

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