Pain of variable severity affecting the head, sometimes due to an underlying disorder
- More common in school-age children
- Gender, genetics and lifestyle as risk factors depend on the cause
Headaches are a common symptom in childhood. They normally cause no more than temporary discomfort, but, if severe or recurrent, they may indicate an underlying condition that requires prompt medical treatment.
Young children, particularly those under the age of 5, are often unable to identify the precise location of pain. They may therefore complain of a headache when the problem is toothache, earache, or even a pain located elsewhere in the body, such as in the abdomen.
What are the causes?
There are many causes of headaches in children, most of which are not serious. In older children especially, the reasons for most headaches are often similar to those in adults (see Headache). However, parents may be understandably worried that their child is suffering from a serious illness such as meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes covering the brain (see Meningitis in children), or a brain tumour (see Brain and spinal cord tumours in children). These two disorders account for only a tiny percentage of childhood headaches, but it is important that parents are aware of the main symptoms so that they know when they should seek medical advice (see Symptom chart 7: Headache).
Short-lived headaches in children are usually caused by a viral infection, such as a common cold. These infections normally clear up within a few days without needing treatment. Many school-age children suffer from recurrent tension headaches. In the majority of cases, tension headaches last no longer than 24 hours and may be related to emotional stress either at school or at home. Problems with vision, such as shortsightedness (see Myopia), can sometimes result in persistent headaches. By the age of 15, about 1 in 10 children has experienced one or more migraine attacks (see Migraine in children).
What can I do?
If a severe headache occurs with vomiting or drowsiness, contact your doctor without delay. A child who has lost consciousness after a head injury, however briefly, should be taken to hospital immediately. If the headache is mild, encourage your child to rest and relieve his or her discomfort with paracetamol or ibuprofen (see Painkillers).
If you suspect that your child has headaches because of tension, you may be able to help him or her by identifying the particular anxiety. Recurrent headaches that have no obvious cause should be investigated by the doctor.
What might the doctor do?
If the doctor cannot find a cause for concern following a physical examination of your child, further tests are not usually necessary. If the doctor suspects meningitis, he or she will have the child admitted to hospital immediately for treatment. Rarely, your child may need CT scanning or MRI of the brain to investigate an injury or rule out the presence of a tumour.
If your child is normally well but has regular, persistent headaches, an eye test may be needed to exclude vision problems, and the doctor may refer him or her to an optician.
From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.
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