Headaches can be caused by muscle tension, an underlying illness or infection, or disturbances in the blood vessels in the head. The latter scenario produces migraine headaches, which typically recur periodically and are characterized by severe pain, often concentrated on one side of the head, that is aggravated by light, sometimes preceded by disturbances in vision, and is often associated with nausea and vomiting. Headaches can sometimes be related to disorders that warrant
further investigation, such as infections of the scalp, ears, sinuses, or spinal fluid. They can also be caused by allergies, fever, high blood pressure, epilepsy, brain tumors, severe cavities or oral infections, certain drugs, or an injury to the head.
Most often, headaches are related to tension. However, if your child awakens crying and holding his head, the cause is most likely something other than tension. If your child has a headache in combination with a high fever, severe vomiting, a stiff neck, confusion, disorientation, or extreme fatigue, see your doctor immediately. This can be a sign of a serious illness, such as meningitis or encephalitis. If a child's headache is so severe that he isn't tempted by a promise of his favorite activity or a favorite food, or if the headaches are frequent and chronic, you should consult with a physician.
A young child with a limited vocabulary may be unable to describe how his head feels. A tension headache often feels like a tight band around the head. The pain may be throbbing or dull, mild or severe. Sudden movements often seem to make a tension headache worse. A headache may develop suddenly, or come on gradually. Tension headaches most often develop during the day, worsen as the day goes on, and may be relieved with sleep.
An attack of migraine, on the other hand, can last for days; sleep may or may not be helpful in easing the pain. Some children with migraines may not even complain of head pain, but rather of nausea, vomiting, and stomachache. Migraines can be triggered by a number of different factors, including emotional stress, hypoglycemia, food allergies, head injuries, oral contraceptives, or hormonal changes related to the menstrual cycle, which may be why more females than males suffer from them. The disorder also tends to run in families.
WHEN TO CALL THE DOCTOR ABOUT A HEADACHE
If your child has a headache in combination with a high fever, extreme fatigue, a stiff neck, severe vomiting, or confusion or disorientation, call your doctor immediately or take your child to the emergency room of the nearest hospital. These can be signs of an infection affecting the brain, such as encephalitis or meningitis.
If your child's headaches are so severe that they interfere with normal activities, or if they are frequent rather than isolated occurrences, consult with your doctor.
A mild pain reliever, such as ibuprofen (found in Advil, Nuprin, and other medications) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, Tempra, and others) can relieve a headache. These drugs are most effective when given early; headache pain becomes increasingly difficult to relieve as it becomes more severe. ibuprofen generally works better for headaches, especially migraine headaches, than acetarninophen does.
Note: Ibuprofen is best given with food to avoid possible stomach upset.
Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if taken in excessive amounts. If you give
your child acetaminophen, make sure to read package directions carefully so as
not to exceed the proper dosage for your child's age and size.