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Headaches in children are common. Most of the time they are mild and only happen from time to time.
If your child has any of the following:
Go to the nearest Hospital Emergency (A&E) Department or phone 999
Please ring your GP surgery or call NHS 111 - dial 111
If none of the above features are present.
Continue providing your child’s care at home. If you are still concerned about your child, speak to your health visitor, local pharmacist or call NHS 111– dial 111
In school aged children, physical symptoms such as headaches can commonly occur if they are feeling anxious. Click here to learn more about how you can help your child if they are feeling worried.
The two main types of headache are ‘tension type headaches’ and ‘migraines.’
Tension type headaches are the common type of headache that most people get now and again. They can last from 30mins to several hours (occasionally several days) and usually feel like a constant ache or painful tightness throughout the head. Although unpleasant they are usually not severe enough to prevent your child continuing with every day activities.
‘Migraines’ are more severe headaches – this type of headache can be all over the head or sometimes just one side of the head. Your child will typically have to stop what they are doing and rest until the migraine has passed. They will often find normal light, noises and smells distressing and prefer to lie quietly in a dark room. They might look pale, feel sick or actually vomit. They may complain of a nasty taste, be a bit clumsy or sweaty.
‘Migraine with aura’ Sometimes there will be a warning that a migraine is coming – this is called an ‘aura’. A common ‘aura’ is to experience changes in your vision like blurriness or unusual patterns of lines or circles/dots in black and white (your child may be able to draw this for you!). You might notice that your child behaves differently leading up to a migraine: they may have a craving for certain foods (like sweets or chocolate), have mood swings, be hyperactive or the opposite - feel very tired or yawn a lot.
‘Abdominal Migraine’ Some children with migraine may have tummy pain more than headache. This can make the migraine less obvious to diagnose. Your doctor or nurse will be able to consider other possible causes for the tummy pain and can recognise abdominal migraine by the overall pattern of symptoms, particularly because there will also be other features typical to migraines described above.
There are no specific tests to diagnose migraine or tension type headaches – this is done by taking a clear history of what happens and examining the child to check for other possible causes of the headache. Scans of the head are not helpful in diagnosing migraine.
Most headaches are not a problem: they are not severe, do not happen often and cause little disruption to your child’s life. It is enough simply to let them rest until it is over, or give them some paracetamol or ibuprofen. Sometimes they can be more troublesome, either because they cause severe symptoms or are happening too often; they get in the way of normal life too much. If this is happening it can be helpful to look for ‘triggers’ that make having a headache more likely.
Some common triggers include:
Keeping a headache diary that records when the headaches happen and what else is going on may help you to recognise the particular trigger(s) for your child (it will also be helpful for your doctor or nurse if you need to go back for more advice). If you can avoid the trigger(s) the headaches will happen less often.
Even if there are no direct triggers, it really helps for your child to keep to a regular routine:
Eye strain can cause headaches – if your child has not had a recent eye check then take them to an opticians.
Finally, simple painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen can be used, but it is important not to do this too regularly. If they take painkillers for more than 3 days a week for headaches, week after week after week, they can get a ‘medication overuse headache’. This is a daily headache that can only be stopped by having a complete break from medication.
Migraines usually affect your child’s gut as well as causing a headache (that’s why they can feel sick or vomit, dislike strong smells or have bad tummy pains). In this case if you are needing to use a painkiller if can be very helpful to use a soluble form that is absorbed quickly – dispersible tablets or liquid medicine. It may also be helpful for them to take anti-sickness medication at the same time – if so your doctor will have prescribed this. Taking the anti-sickness medication and painkiller early on during the attack is important for them to work best – make sure you always have them available when you are away from home.
Sometimes, if these treatments are not successful, your child will be prescribed a special migraine medication called a triptan.
You can treat your child's very minor illnesses and injuries at home.
Some illnesses can be treated in your own home with support and advice from the services listed when required, using the recommended medicines and getting plenty of rest.
Children can recover from illness quickly but also can become more poorly quickly; it is important to seek further advice if a child's condition gets worse.
For information on common childhood illnesses go to What is wrong with my child?
Pharmacists are experts in many aspects of healthcare and can offer advice on a wide range of long-term conditions and common illnesses such as coughs, colds and stomach upsets. You don’t need an appointment and many have private consultation areas, so they are a good first port of call. Your pharmacist will say if you need further medical attention.
For information on common childhood illnesses go to What is wrong with my child?
Health visitors are nurses or midwives who are passionate about promoting healthy lifestyles and preventing illness through the delivery of the Healthy Child Programme. They work with you through your pregnancy up until your child is ready to start school.
Health Visitors can also make referrals for you to other health professionals for example hearing or vision concerns or to the Community Paediatricians or to the child and adolescent mental health services.
Contact them by phoning your Health Visitor Team or local Children’s Centre.
Health visitors also provide advice, support and guidance in caring for your child, including:
For more information watch the video: What does a health visitor do?
School nurses care for children and young people, aged 5-19, and their families, to ensure their health needs are supported within their school and community. They work closely with education staff and other agencies to support parents, carers and the children and young people, with physical and/or emotional health needs.
Contacting the School Nurse
Primary and secondary schools have an allocated school nurse – telephone your child’s school to ask for the contact details of your named school nurse.
There is also a specialist nurse who works with families who choose to educate their children at home.
Before your child starts school your health visitor will meet with the school nursing team to transfer their care to the school nursing service. The school nursing team consists of a school nursing lead, specialist public health practitioners and school health staff nurses.
They all have a role in preventing disease and promoting health and wellbeing, by:-
Each member of the team has links with many other professionals who also work with children including community paediatricians, child and adolescent mental health teams, health visitors and speech and language therapists. The school health nursing service also forms part of the multi-agency services for children, young people and families where there are child protection or safeguarding issues.
GPs assess, treat and manage a whole range of health problems. They also provide health education, give vaccinations and carry out simple surgical procedures. Your GP will arrange a referral to a hospital specialist should you need it.
You have a choice of service:
If you’re not sure which NHS service you need, call 111. An adviser will ask you questions to assess your symptoms and then give you the advice you need, or direct you straightaway to the best service for you in your area.
Use NHS 111 if you are unsure what to do next, have any questions about a condition or treatment or require information about local health services.
A&E departments provide vital care for life-threatening emergencies, such as loss of consciousness, suspected heart attacks, breathing difficulties, or severe bleeding that cannot be stopped. If you’re not sure it’s an emergency, call 111 for advice.