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Oooh, Your Aching Head!

You're having a perfectly good day when, all of a sudden, your head starts to ache. You can't concentrate on what you're doing because your head hurts so much. You might even feel sick to your stomach.

What's going on here? Why do kids get headaches anyway? Most important, how can you make the hurting go away or keep it from happening?

One thing's for sure: If you get headaches, you're not alone. Lots of kids have headaches from time to time. In fact, it's more unusual for someone not to have had a headache at least once before his or her early teens.

Let's find out more about headaches and how you can stop them from happening.

What Is a Headache?

Although it may feel like it, a headache is not a pain in your brain. Your brain tells you when other parts of your body hurt, but it can't actually feel pain. Most headaches happen in the nerves, blood vessels, and muscles that cover a person's head and neck. Sometimes the muscles or blood vessels swell, which means they get larger.

They also can tighten or go through other changes that stimulate or put pressure on the surrounding nerves. The nerves send a rush of pain messages to your brain, and you end up with a headache.

Different Kinds of Headaches

The most common type of headache is a tension, or muscle-contraction, headache. This happens when stressed-out head or neck muscles keep squeezing too hard. When you get this kind of headache, the pain is usually dull and constant. It might feel as though something is pressing or squeezing on the front, back, or both sides of your head.

Pain that's especially sharp and throbbing can be a sign of a different kind of headache called a migraine (say: MY-grayne). Migraine headaches aren't as common as tension headaches, especially in kids, but they can still happen. Sometimes, just before a migraine happens, the person sees wavy lines or bright spots of light. This is called an aura (say: AWR-uh). Also, kids who get migraines often feel sick to their stomachs and sometimes throw up.

What Causes Headaches?

Sometimes a headache is just a part of another illness, such as a cold or flu or strep throat. When you get better, the headache gets better, too.

If you're not sick, other triggers may cause a headache. For example, staying up too late, skipping a meal, or playing in the hot sun too long can set off a headache.

Excitement about a special event or worry about something (a school exam, for instance) can also cause headaches. Some kids get headaches from riding in a car or bus or from straining their eyes by spending too much time watching TV or using a computer.

Strong odors, such as perfume, smoke, fumes, or the smell of a new car or carpet, can start a headache.

Some foods can cause headaches in some kids, such as bacon, bologna, and hot dogs. The caffeine in sodas, chocolate, coffee, and tea may cause headaches, too. Kids don't need caffeine, so it's a good idea to limit it in your diet.

Sometimes no one knows why a kid gets headaches, but if you get them, chances are someone in your family gets them, too. The tendency to get headaches is often inherited. In other words, it runs in the family.

Headache Help

Most headaches will go away after you've rested or slept awhile. When you get one, the first thing you should do is tell an adult, so he or she can help. Lie down in a cool, dark, quiet room and close your eyes. Put a cool, moist cloth across your forehead or eyes. Relax. Breathe easily and deeply.

A grown-up can give you a pain relief medicine — either acetaminophen (say: uh-see-tuh-MIH-nuh-fun) or ibuprofen (say: i-byoo-PROfun). You want to avoid taking aspirin for a headache because it may cause a rare but dangerous disease called Reye syndrome (say: RYE SIN-drome).

When Should You Go to a Doctor?

Headaches are very rarely a sign of anything serious, such as a brain tumor or meningitis. This is especially true for kids. Headache triggers such as eating certain foods, being stressed out, or not getting enough sleep are much more likely causes of headaches in kids. Or sometimes, there's no obvious reason at all.

Still, there are times when your mom or dad should talk with the doctor about your headaches:

  • when a headache is particularly painful
  • when a headache doesn't go away easily
  • when a headache follows an injury, such as hitting your head
  • when your vision is affected
  • when you feel tingling sensations
  • when you just don't seem like your usual self
  • when headaches occur once a month or more
  • when headaches cause you to miss school

A doctor can help you and your parents figure out why you're getting headaches and might be able to help you keep them from happening so often. Sometimes relaxation exercises or changes in diet or sleeping habits are all that's needed. If necessary, a doctor also can prescribe medication to control headaches.

If you're bothered by headaches, you don't have to put up with the pain. Sometimes relief is just a nap away. Other times, seeing a doctor may be necessary. But there's almost always something that you, your parents, and your doctor can do to help.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: April 2013