Children get the same types of headaches adults do, but their symptoms may differ. For example, a migraine in an adult usually starts early in the morning, but a child's is more likely to develop in the late afternoon. Also, migraine pain in children may last less than four hours, whereas in adults, migraines last at least four hours. Such differences may make it difficult to pinpoint headache type in a child, especially in a younger child who can't describe symptoms.
In general, though, certain symptoms tend to fall more frequently under certain categories.
Migraines can cause:
- Pulsating, throbbing or pounding head pain
- Pain that worsens with exertion
- Abdominal pain
- Extreme sensitivity to light and sound
Even infants can have migraines. A child who's too young to tell you what's wrong may cry and hold his or her head to indicate severe pain.
Tension-type headaches can cause:
- A pressing tightness in the muscles of the head or neck
- Mild to moderate, nonpulsating pain on both sides of the head
- Pain that's not worsened by physical activity
- Headache that's not accompanied by nausea or vomiting, as is often the case with migraine
Younger children may withdraw from regular play and want to sleep more. Tension-type headaches can last from 30 minutes to several days.
Cluster headaches are uncommon in children under 12 years of age. They usually:
- Occur in groups of five or more episodes, ranging from one headache every other day to eight a day
- Involve sharp, stabbing pain on one side of the head that lasts from 15 minutes to three hours
- Are accompanied by teariness, congestion, runny nose, or restlessness or agitation
Chronic daily headache
Doctors use the phrase "chronic daily headache" (CDH) for migraine headaches and tension-type headaches that occur more than 15 days a month for more than three months. CDH may be caused by an infection, minor head injury or taking pain medications — even nonprescription pain medications — too often.
When to see a doctor
Most headaches aren't serious, but seek prompt medical care if your child's headaches:
- Wake your child from sleep
- Worsen or become more frequent
- Change your child's personality
- Follow an injury, such as a blow to the head to
- Feature persistent vomiting or visual changes
- Are accompanied by fever and neck pain or stiffness