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Acute Headache in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2023.


An acute headache

is pain or discomfort that may start suddenly and gets worse quickly. The cause of an acute headache may not be known. It may be triggered by stress, fatigue, hormones, food, or trauma. Your child may have an acute headache only when he or she feels stress or eats certain foods. Other acute headache pain can happen every day, and sometimes several times a day.

Common types of acute headache:

  • Tension headache is the most common type of headache. These headaches typically occur in the late afternoon and go away by evening. The pain is usually mild or moderate. Your child may have problems tolerating bright light or loud noise. The pain is usually across the forehead or in the back of the head, often only on one side. These headaches may occur every day.
  • Migraine headaches cause moderate or severe pain. The headache generally lasts from 1 to 3 days and tends to come back. Pain is usually on only one side, but it may change sides. Migraines often occur in the temple, the back of the head, or behind the eye. The pain may throb or be sharp and steady.
  • A migraine with aura means your child sees or feels something before a migraine. He or she may see a small spot surrounded by bright zigzag lines. Other signs or symptoms may follow the aura.
  • Cluster headache pain is usually only on one side. It often causes severe pain, and can last for 30 minutes to 2 hours. These headaches may occur 1 or 2 times each day. These headaches occur more often at night, and may wake your child.

Seek care immediately if:

  • Your child has severe pain.
  • Your child has numbness on one side of his or her face or body.
  • Your child has a headache that occurs after a blow to the head, a fall, or other trauma.
  • Your child has a headache and is forgetful or confused.

Call your child's doctor if:

  • Your child has a constant headache and is vomiting.
  • Your child has a headache each day that does not get better, even after treatment.
  • Your child's headaches change, or new symptoms occur when your child has a headache.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

Treatment for an acute headache

may include medicine to decrease pain. Your child may also need biofeedback or cognitive behavioral therapy. Ask your child's healthcare provider about these and other treatments for an acute headache.

Manage your child's symptoms:

  • Apply heat or ice on the headache area. Use a heat or ice pack. For an ice pack, you can also put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover the pack or bag with a towel before you apply it to your child's skin. Ice and heat both help decrease pain, and heat helps decrease muscle spasms. Apply heat for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours. Apply ice for 15 to 20 minutes every hour. Apply heat or ice for as long and for as many days as directed. You may alternate heat and ice.
  • Have your child relax his or her muscles. Have your child lie down in a comfortable position and close his or her eyes. Your child should relax muscles slowly, starting at the toes and working up the body.
  • Keep a record of your child's headaches. Write down when the headaches start and stop. Include other symptoms and what your child was doing when the headache began. Record what your child ate or drank for 24 hours before the headache started. Describe the pain and where it hurts. Keep track of what you or your child did to treat the headache and if it worked.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

Help your child prevent an acute headache:

  • Have your child avoid anything that triggers an acute headache. Examples include exposure to chemicals, going to high altitude, or not getting enough sleep. Help your child create a regular sleep routine. He or she should go to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time each day. Do not allow your child to use electronic devices before bedtime. These may trigger a headache or prevent your child from sleeping well.
  • Do not let your adolescent smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can trigger an acute headache or make it worse. Ask your adolescent's healthcare provider for information if he or she currently smokes and needs help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before your adolescent uses these products.
  • Have your child exercise as directed. Exercise can reduce tension and help with headache pain. Your child should aim for 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week. Your healthcare provider can help you create an exercise plan.
    Family Walking for Exercise
  • Offer your child a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, fish, whole grains, and cooked beans. Your healthcare provider or dietitian can help you create meals plans if your child needs to avoid foods that trigger headaches.
    Healthy Foods

Follow up with your child's healthcare provider as directed:

Bring your headache record with you when you see your child's healthcare provider. Write down your questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.

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The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.