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First Aid: Stiff Neck

First Aid

A stiff neck without other symptoms might be caused by minor muscle strain from sleeping in an odd position or looking down at a phone too long.

If your child has a stiff neck along with a fever and a headache, it could be more serious. For instance, meningitis is a rare infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord that can cause a stiff neck, headache, and fever.

What to Do

If your child has a stiff or sore neck but no fever or other symptoms:

  • put a warm moist cloth on the neck as often as needed for pain
  • give acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain
  • call the doctor if symptoms last more than a few days

Get Medical Care if Your Child Has a Stiff Neck and:

  • had a recent injury
  • has been bitten by a tick within the last month
  • has a fever (or lower-than-normal temperature in babies)
  • seems very tired or drowsy
  • is very cranky (or is a baby and can't be comforted)
  • has a lasting headache
  • is vomiting
  • has a skin rash
  • has flu-like symptoms
  • is an infant and has a weak suck, high-pitched cry, or a bulging soft spot on the skull

Think Prevention!

  • Get all routine immunizations on time, especially the meningococcal vaccine, which protects against bacterial meningitis.
  • Help kids avoid tick bites:
    • Use insect repellent (with no more than 10% to 30% concentration of DEET).
    • Check kids and pets often for ticks.
    • Make sure kids wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts in high-risk outdoor areas.
  • Have children avoid activities and equipment known to be risky for neck injuries.
Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: February 2019