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Your child's headache

Headaches aren't just an adult problem, with most teenagers and children getting at least one headache a year.

Children's headaches can be different to adult ones, including some being as short as half an hour.

Experts say children rarely fake headaches, and when they do report headache symptoms, they can often be accompanied with tummy ache.

Many parents worry that their child's headache is the sign of a serious medical condition, but most headaches in children and adolescents are nothing to worry about.

What causes headaches in children and adolescents?

Children get headaches for many of the same reasons that adults get headaches. However, most headaches in children are usually due to an illness, for example an infection, or a raised temperature. Other conditions that can cause headaches include sinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses), pharyngitis (inflammation or infection of the throat) or otitis (ear infection).

The exact causes of migraines are unknown, although they are related to changes in the brain as well as to genetic causes. It is now thought that migraines are caused by changes in the chemicals in the brain, for example serotonin. Changes in chemicals are responsible for the contraction of blood vessels in the brain that may cause migraine aura, and the expansion (dilation) of blood vessels in the brain thought to cause headache.

Most children and adolescents (90%) who have migraines have other family members with migraines. When both parents have a history of migraines, there is a 70% chance that the child will also develop migraines. If only one parent has a history of migraines, the risk drops to between 25% and 50%. Children and adolescents with migraines may also inherit the tendency to be affected by certain migraine triggers such as fatigue, bright lights and changes in weather.

Some migraine triggers can be identified such as stress, anxiety, depression, a change in routine or sleep pattern, bright light, loud noises, tiredness, hunger, or certain foods, food additives and beverages. Too much physical activity or too much sun can trigger a migraine in some children and adolescents.

Common causes of tension headaches include striving for academic excellence as well as emotional stress related to family, school, and friends. Other causes of tension headaches include eyestrain and neck or back strain due to poor posture. Depression may also be a reason for your child to get headaches.

When headaches get worse over time and occur together with other neurological symptoms such as loss of vision, speech problems or muscle weakness, they can be the sign of a more serious problem such as:

  • Hydrocephalus - abnormal build-up of fluid in the brain
  • Infection of the brain such as meningitis - an infection or inflammation of the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord
  • Encephalitis - inflammation of the brain
  • Abscess
  • Haemorrhage - bleeding within the brain
  • Tumour
  • Blood clots
  • Head trauma

If you suspect any of the above listed conditions, seek urgent medical advice.

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