Best Ways To Treat Headaches in Children


Headaches can occur in pediatric patients, just as they do in adults. The most common causes of headaches in children are viral illnesses, stress, fatigue and migraines. Rarely are headaches a sign of a much more serious illness. If your child’s headache is associated with a high fever, rash or vomiting, you should see your pediatrician right away.

Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP

Tension headaches in our teenage patients are something we see from time to time here at Westchester Health Pediatrics, especially during exam time or when college applications are due. In fact, headaches are one of the most common medical complaints of the teen years. Typically, a tension headache escalates over the course of the day, producing pressure on both sides of the scalp and down the neck as scalp muscles tighten around the skull, usually in response to stress.

Possible causes of your teen’s headaches

Headaches are often part of many illnesses such as viruses, strep throat, allergies, sinus infections and urinary tract infections. Other common causes include:

  • Extreme hunger or thirst
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Specific foods and drinks, such as chocolate, hard and aged cheeses, pizza, yogurt, nuts, lima beans, processed meats, some fruits and fruit juices
  • Food additives (monosodium glutamate, nitrates, nitrites)
  • Certain nonprescription dietary supplements and/or prescription drugs (birth-control pills, tetracycline, excessive doses of vitamin A)
  • Caffeine (sodas, coffee, chocolate)
  • Alcohol, cocaine and other illicit substances
  • Eye strain, including sun glare
  • Fatigue
  • Tooth infections or abscesses
  • Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle
  • Changes in the weather
  • Emotional stress, depression, anxiety, intense anger, extreme excitement
  • Noisy, hot, stuffy environments
  • Flickering or glaring lights
  • Strong smells
  • Clenching or grinding teeth
  • Physical exertion
  • Head injury

Typical symptoms of headaches

Tension headaches

  • Constant, dull ache on both sides of the forehead
  • Tightness in the head, radiating down the neck

Migraine headaches

  • Throbbing, incapacitating pain on one side of the head
  • Mental dullness
  • Moodiness
  • Fatigue
  • Fluid retention
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting

Several things you can do to treat your child’s headaches

Headaches respond best to treatment when they’re still in their early stages.

  1. Simple, at-home remedies

  • If your child has a tension headache, encourage him/her to lie down with the head elevated slightly.
  • A hot bath or shower can help, as well as a warm or cold compress on the forehead and/or neck.
  • For migraine sufferers, you want to minimize sensory stimulation. Turn off the lights in the room, close the curtains, try to maintain quiet. A cold compress helps but do not apply heat—that will only make the pain worse.
  1. Drug therapy

Tension headaches and migraines frequently respond well to over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).

If these don’t bring relief or if the symptoms recur, the next step might be a prescription for one of the “triptans” (sumatriptan, zolmitriptan, naratriptan rizatriptan) which block the action of the neurotransmitter serotonin. And because triptans are nonsedating, children usually can return to school or other activities more quickly without having to sleep off the headache or migraine.

  1. Keep a “headache diary”

This may help you and your child pinpoint the cause of the headaches. Keep a record of the following information:

  • when the headache occurred
  • how long it lasted
  • what your child was doing when the headache started
  • foods eaten that day
  • amount of sleep the night before
  • what seems to make the headaches better or worse
  1. Relaxation exercises

Yoga, Pilates, stretching and breathing exercise can help your child handle stress more effectively and hopefully prevent or at least decrease tension-related headaches. Biofeedback, a mind-body technique, has also proved useful in reducing both the frequency and the duration of headaches, especially migraine. Psychotherapy, too, may help in treating migraines.

  1. Preventative medicines for migraines

Teenagers plagued by 3 or more migraines a month may be candidates for antidepressants such as amitriptyline, beta-blockers, calcium-channel blockers or anti-seizure medications.

How teens can help prevent their own headaches

These tips may help your child keep headaches from starting:

  • Get the proper amount of sleep
  • Eat regular meals, or if not possible, eat frequent healthy snacks
  • Exercise regularly
  • Be aware of any pattern to their headaches that might help them identify headache triggers

Worried about your child’s headaches? Come see us, we can help.

If your child is experiencing frequent headaches or migraines, please make an appointment with Westchester Health Pediatrics. One of our pediatricians will listen to the symptoms, examine your child to try to figure out the cause of the headaches, and possibly prescribe medication, all with the goal of helping your child feel better soon and avoid more headaches in the future. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

Make an appt

By Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP, pediatrician with Westchester Health Pediatrics, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

Share Social

About the Author: ML Ball