Symptom guide: Headaches


Headaches affect children in just the same way they affect adults. There are numerous causes for a headache that can be mild to severe and it’s important to identify when it’s a passing pain or something that needs medical attention. A toddler may not always be able to tell you that her head hurts but you can watch out for the signs.

Signs of a headache in young children include crankiness, rubbing her head, frowning, squinting eyes, feeling miserable and a dislike of bright lights or loud noises. If you think it could be a headache, seek medical advice urgently and particularly if there is vomiting in the morning, your child is unsteady on her feet, has a stiff neck, seems drowsy and is unable to perform tasks she normally does with ease.

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The symptoms

What it could be

What to do

Dull aching pain likened to a band of tightness around the head. This is called a tension headache.

It could be the result of a child feeling depressed, anxious or stressed out. Tension headaches could n flare because of some problem bother the child at school or home. It can be linked to poor posture as well.

Remove the child from the tense situation and help him relax. Ensure your child is getting enough sleep and drinks plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Pain relief medication as recommended by your doctor may be taken. Never give your child aspirin for risk of Reye’s syndrome. Only give your child more than a few pills a week. Too much painkillers can cause rebound headaches when the pills effect subsides.

A throbbing pain affecting one side of the head is usually a migraine. May be accompanied by mood changes, paleness, fatigue, dizziness, blurred vision, food cravings or loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or fever.

Migraines could be triggered by sensitivity to bright lights and noises. It could be stress related or caused by certain foods (including nitrite-preserved foods such as hot dogs and lunch meat), strenuous activity and too much sun. Migraines are hereditary and first affect children between 5 and 8 years old, but can start at any age

If the headaches are causing blurry vision, seizures or weakness see a doctor for diagnosis. Jot down when and where the headaches take place along with other symptoms your child might have. This may help in understanding what the triggers are to the migraines. Also try soft music or reading for relaxation. A neck and shoulders massage could help as well as applying an ice pack to relieve sore spots.

Severe headache with high fever, continual vomiting, no appetite, drowsy, light sensitivity and sometimes a rash or stiff neck.   

Headache is often the main complaint of a patient with meningitis. Meningitis is described as the inflammation of the membranes (meninges) that surround the brain and spinal cord.

If your child lies down and is unable to bend his head toward his chest owing to the intense pain – seek medical treatment immediately.

Headaches early in the morning that wake your child from sleep, or get progressively severe or frequent.

Brain tumors are very rare. It is the cause in only 1 of 40 000 headaches in children.   

Seek a doctor urgently to rule out any possibility of a tumor.

Dull ache in one specific spot of the head or face i.e. behind the eyes is called a sinus headache. Also fever, tiredness, blocked nose, yellow/green discharge from the nose and sore throat. Babies will touch their ears or head indicating pain.

Sinusitis can be caused by a flu, cold or allergy. It’s when the sinuses (air-filled cavities around the nose, eyes, and cheeks) become inflamed and prevent the proper draining of mucus causing the sinuses to block up and bacteria to build up.

See your doctor for suitable medications to relieve the problem. Antibiotics maybe prescribed to stave off the infection as well as a decongestant to ease a blocked nose.

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