Kids' headaches: what to do

Should you worry if your child gets a headache? Here's what to look for the next time pain strikes.

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One afternoon, my five-year-old daughter started complaining of a headache. Within minutes, she’d scrunched herself into a ball and hidden her head under a pillow to escape the noise and sunlight in the room.

As a veteran migraine sufferer, I was pretty sure I knew what was going on. I gave her some ibuprofen, tucked her into bed and prayed it was nothing more sinister. A few hours later, she awoke feeling fine — and I was able to exhale. According to Michael Dickinson, a paediatrician in Miramichi, NB, about three percent of children younger than seven get headaches.

And if you had them when you were a child, your kids stand a good chance of getting them, too. While some little ones only get head pain once in a while, others experience it two or three times a week. “This can be normal, as long as the headaches aren’t preventing the child from going to school and participating in extracurricular activities,” says Dickinson.

Common culprits

Children’s headaches can be triggered by stress, fatigue, hunger, or even something they ate, especially if it included caffeine or additives like monosodium glutamate (MSG, which can be found in packaged foods) or nitrates (in some cured meats, like hot dogs and bacon). Sometimes, outside factors like a bump on the head, a sinus infection or the flu are to blame. Headaches could also be a sign that your child has vision problems; a routine eye exam will let you know. “Most often, though,” says Dickinson, “headaches appear out of the blue and for no particular reason.”

Soothing strategies

Treatment options include cold compresses on the forehead, acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain, and for nausea, dimenhydrinate (i.e. Gravol). The best non-medicinal treatment is to lie down in a dark, quiet room.

If your child gets frequent headaches, finding a common trigger can help your paediatrician determine the cause. Keep track of the day the headache occurred, her activities and what she’d eaten, plus any changes in her routine.

When to call the doctor

Have your child checked out if it’s his first headache, if you notice headaches becoming more frequent or painful, or lasting longer than usual. Neurological symptoms (such as changes in gait, balance or coordination), vomiting and headaches that awaken your child from sleep are all red flags that could indicate a more serious problem. Head to the emergency room if a severe headache is accompanied by a stiff neck and fever, as these are symptoms of meningitis.

This article appeared in our May 2013 issue with the headline “Headache Helpers,” p.34.

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