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Tension Headache in Children


Tension headaches are often caused by tense head or neck muscles. The headache can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several days. Tension headaches usually do not cause any serious problems.


Seek care immediately if:

  • Your child has a sudden headache that seems different or much worse than his or her usual headaches.
  • Your child has difficulty seeing, speaking, or moving.
  • Your child passes out, becomes confused, or has a seizure.
  • Your child has a headache, fever, and a stiff neck.

Contact your child's healthcare provider if:

  • Your child's headaches continue to get worse.
  • Your child's headaches happen so often that they affect his or her ability to do normal activities.
  • Your child needs to take medicine more often than his or her healthcare provider recommends.
  • Your child's headaches get so bad that they cause him or her to vomit.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.


  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If your child takes blood thinner medicine, always ask if NSAIDs are safe for him or her. Always read the medicine label and follow directions. Do not give these medicines to children under 6 months of age without direction from your child's healthcare provider.
  • Acetaminophen decreases pain and fever. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to give your child and how often to give it. Follow directions. Read the labels of all other medicines your child uses to see if they also contain acetaminophen, or ask your child's doctor or pharmacist. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
  • Do not give aspirin to children under 18 years of age. Your child could develop Reye syndrome if he takes aspirin. Reye syndrome can cause life-threatening brain and liver damage. Check your child's medicine labels for aspirin, salicylates, or oil of wintergreen.
  • Give your child's medicine as directed. Contact your child's healthcare provider if you think the medicine is not working as expected. Tell him or her if your child is allergic to any medicine. Keep a current list of the medicines, vitamins, and herbs your child takes. Include the amounts, and when, how, and why they are taken. Bring the list or the medicines in their containers to follow-up visits. Carry your child's medicine list with you in case of an emergency.

Help manage your child's symptoms:

  • Keep a headache record. Include when they start and stop and what made them better. Describe your child's symptoms, such as how the pain feels, where it is, and how bad it is. Record anything your child ate or drank for the past 24 hours before the headache. Bring the record to follow-up visits.
  • Apply heat as directed. Heat may help decrease headache pain and muscle spasms. Apply heat on the area for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours for as many days as directed. A warm bath may also help relieve muscle tension and spasms.
  • Apply ice as directed. Ice may help decrease headache pain. Use an ice pack or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel and place it on the area for 15 to 20 minutes every hour as directed.

Help your child prevent a tension headache:

  • Encourage your child to talk about stress or worry. Your child may be nervous about school or feel anxiety about a change, such as moving to a new house. You may be able to help prevent tension headaches by letting your child talk about his or her feelings.
  • Prevent muscle tension. Tell your child not to stay in one position for long periods of time. Your child should use a different pillow if he or she wakes up with sore neck and shoulder muscles. Help your child find ways to relax muscles, such as massage or resting in a quiet, dark room.
  • Prevent eye strain. Make sure your child has good lighting when he or she reads, sews, or does similar activities. Take your child in for a yearly eye exam. Ask about coatings applied to glasses that will help block UV rays and reduce light glare from electronics.
  • Help your child get enough sleep. Your child should get 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night. Help your child create a sleep schedule. Have your child go to bed and wake up at the same times each day. It may be helpful for your child to do something relaxing before bed. Do not let your child watch television right before bed.
  • Offer your child a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. Do not let your child eat foods that trigger headaches.
  • Encourage your child to exercise regularly. Exercise helps decrease stress and headaches. Ask about the best exercise plan for your child.
  • Have your child drink liquids as directed. Your child may need to drink more liquid to prevent dehydration. Dehydration can make a tension headache worse. Ask your child's healthcare provider how much liquid your child needs each day and which liquids are best for him or her. Have your child limit caffeine as directed. Caffeine may make a tension headache worse.
  • Talk to your adolescent about not smoking. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can trigger a headache or make it worse. Do not smoke around your child or let anyone else smoke around your child. Secondhand smoke can also trigger a tension 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 adolescent's healthcare provider before he or she uses these products.

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

Bring the headache record with you. 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.

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