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Cluster Headache in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2023.

What is a cluster headache?

A cluster headache is a very painful headache that starts quickly, peaks within 15 minutes, and stops suddenly. The headache usually lasts 30 to 60 minutes but can last up to 3 hours. Cluster headaches follow patterns and often occur at the same time of the day or year. Your child may have cluster headaches once every other day, or up to 8 each day. A cluster headache in children can be triggered by medicine, stress, bright light, or heat. A cluster period usually lasts for 2 to 12 weeks but can last longer than a year. Weeks or months may pass before a new cluster period begins. Cluster headaches are less common in children than in adults. Children usually do not grow out of cluster headaches.

What increases my child's risk for a cluster headache?

The cause is not known. Cluster headaches usually start after 10 years, more commonly in adolescents. Your child is also more likely to have cluster headaches if he is male. A family history of cluster headaches also increases your child's risk.

What are the signs and symptoms of a cluster headache?

  • Severe pain on one side of the head that stabs or burns
  • Swollen or watery eye, or droopy eyelid
  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Red or sweaty face
  • Restlessness
  • Sensitive to noise or light
  • Exhaustion after the headache stops

How is a cluster headache diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider will ask your child to describe his or her symptoms. Your child should tell the provider how often the headaches occur and how long they last. The provider will ask about your child's medical history and medicines. Your child may need any of the following tests:

  • A neurological exam is a series of tests to check for problems with your child's brain and nervous system. Your child's healthcare provider will shine a light in your child's eyes to find out how they react to light. The provider may ask questions to check your child's memory. Your child's hand grasp and balance will also be tested.
  • CT scan or MRI pictures may be taken of your child's brain and the blood vessels and structures in his or her head. Your child may be given contrast liquid to help images show up better on the monitor. Tell healthcare providers if your child has ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not let your child enter the MRI room with any metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if your child has any metal in his or her body.

How is a cluster headache treated?

Cluster headaches cannot be cured, but treatment may help your child's symptoms. Your child's healthcare provider may have your child try several medicines to find out what works best. Your child may need medicines for pain and for prevention. The following may be used to treat pain during a cluster headache:

  • Extra oxygen may give your child pain relief during a cluster headache. Your child will breathe through a plastic mask that is attached to an oxygen tank for about 15 minutes.
  • Migraine medicine may be given to relieve your child's pain quickly.
  • Steroids may help reduce pain and swelling. Steroids may also be used to prevent cluster headaches.
  • Numbing medicine may be given to numb your child's pain if other treatments do not work.

What can I do to help my child prevent a cluster headache?

One goal is to prevent headaches before they happen. Another goal is to shorten a cluster period. Headaches may happen less often and be less severe with certain medicines. Seizure medicine or mood stabilizers may be given to prevent cluster headaches. Your child may need to take one medicine at the start of a cluster period. He or she may take a different medicine for as long as the cluster period lasts or is expected to last.

What can I do to help manage my child's cluster headaches?

  • Do not let your adolescent smoke. Cluster headaches are more common among smokers. Ask your healthcare provider for information if your adolescent currently smokes and needs help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your adolescent's healthcare provider before he or she uses these products.
  • Do not let your child travel between altitudes. Altitude changes can trigger headaches. Do not let your child fly on an airplane or travel between places with high and low altitudes.
  • Set a regular sleep schedule. Have your child go to sleep and wake up at the same times each day. Changes in sleep patterns may trigger cluster headaches.
  • Manage stress. Stress or emotional challenges can trigger cluster headaches. Find out what works for your child to lower stress.
  • Keep a headache record. Write down when your child's headaches start and stop, and exactly what your child was doing when they began. Record what your child ate or drank and how much he or she slept in the 24 hours before the headache. Keep track of the things you or your child did to treat the symptoms. Write down if they did or did not help. Do this to learn what triggers your child's headaches and how to make them go away.
  • Work with your child's healthcare provider to manage your child's pain. Both pain relievers and medicines used to treat other health conditions can trigger cluster headaches. Go over all your child's medicines with your healthcare provider. Work with the provider to manage your child's headache pain and other conditions.

Call 911 if:

  • Your child's pain is so bad he or she talks about committing suicide.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your child feels more tired or sleepy than usual.
  • Your child has vision changes.
  • Your child's stomach is upset or he or she is vomiting.
  • Your child has a seizure.

When should I contact my child's healthcare provider?

  • Your child cannot get enough sleep because of the headaches.
  • Your child's headaches happen each time he or she is active.
  • Treatment does not help your child's symptoms.
  • 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

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