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Acute Headache in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Dec 2, 2022.

What is an acute headache?

An acute headache is pain or discomfort that may start suddenly and gets worse quickly. 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.

What are the most 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.

What causes an acute headache in children?

The cause of your child's headache may not be known. The following conditions can trigger a headache:

  • Stress or tension, hours or even days after stressful events
  • Fatigue, a lack of sleep or changes in your child's usual sleep pattern, or a nap during the day
  • In adolescents, menstruation or use of birth control pills
  • Food such as cured meats, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, dark chocolate, and MSG
  • Suddenly not having caffeine if your child usually has larger amounts
  • A medical problem, such as an infection, tooth pain, neck or sinus pain, thyroid problems, or a tumor
  • A head injury

How is the type of acute headache diagnosed and treated?

Your child's healthcare provider will ask your child to rate the pain on a scale from 1 to 10. Have your child show the provider where he or she feels the pain. Tell the provider how often your child has headaches and how long they last. Have your child describe any other symptoms he or she has along with headaches, such as dizziness or blurred vision.

  • Medicines may be given to manage or prevent headaches. The medicine will depend on the type of acute headache your child has. Do not wait until the pain is severe before you give your child more medicine. Your child may be able to take over-the-counter pain medicines as needed. Examples include NSAIDs and acetaminophen. Ask your child's healthcare provider which medicine is right for your child. Ask how much to give and when to give it. Follow directions. These medicines can cause stomach bleeding or kidney or liver damage if not taken correctly.
  • Biofeedback may be used to help your older child manage stress. Your child will learn how to change stress reactions. For example, your child will learn to slow his or her heart rate when he or she becomes upset.
  • Stress management may be used with other therapies to prevent headaches.

What can I do to manage my 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 also 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

What can I do to help my 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

When should I seek immediate care?

  • 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.

When should I contact my child's doctor?

  • 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.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. 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.

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Further information

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