When your child complains of a headache, it's easy to conjure up worst-case scenarios and rush off to the doctor. However, Dr Annemarie Christie, clinical director at NSW-based The Children's Doctor, explains that "just like adults", there are common causes of headaches in kids, such as the everyday cold or flu virus, that are manageable.
Like parents, like children
According to Christie, the most common causes of headache include tiredness, stress and symptoms associated with viral infections.
"Headaches are common in children and may have varying causes," she says. "Overexertion, heat exhaustion or dehydration can trigger headache, for example.”
So with cold and flu season upon us, you can bet sore heads will pop up as symptoms, too. These can be uncomfortable and upsetting for your little one. And it's important to remember that children's cold and flu symptoms change as they get older. As they age, headaches will become a more prevalent symptom, so it's important to prepare for this change in symptoms. For instance, in young children, fever is a primary cold and flu symptom, but from age seven onwards, headaches start becoming the leading cause of discomfort.
Cold- or flu-induced headaches
It's not unusual for children to get a headache with they come down with a cold or the flu. "Headache is a common symptom associated with fever," Christie says. "Check for any other symptoms associated with cold or flu, as it may be an early sign of a viral infection."
For example, fever and loss of appetite due to a virus can lead to headaches from dehydration. Fever may present itself as sweating and chills along with a throbbing headache. Alternatively, if your child has a blocked or runny nose from a cold, a headache may result from a swelling of the sinuses and present as aching in the facial area.
Assess the pain
When your child has a cold or flu and is complaining of a headache, a good first step is to try to assess the pain. At different ages, children have different abilities and degrees of understanding for self-reporting their levels of pain. For example, from ages five to eight, children are beginning to gain a better understanding of the pain they're feeling. For younger kids, it can be trickier to get information out of them; you may have to get a little creative. Fortunately, there are a number of useful scales you can use at home, such as a numerical or picture-based scale, to help gauge pain levels for the different age groups.
For cold and flu season, the answer to the pain may be in your medicine cabinet. Medicine can't cure, but you can provide relief for cold and flu symptoms, including headaches, with lots of fluids and an anti-inflammatory agent such as Nurofen for Children*. Of course, if the pain assessment concerns you, look to the pros. "Seek medical advice if your child's headache is sudden in onset, severe and debilitating," says Christie.
What if the headache gets worse?
What if it starts out small, but the headache worsens or continues after the other cold symptoms are gone? "Again, always seek medical advice if your child's headaches are becoming more frequent and more severe," says Christie. "Especially if the headaches are resulting in school absences."
Vomiting, dizziness, sensitivity to light and blurred vision can be signs of migraine, which can be a chronic problem with more intense pain and discomfort, according to Christie. "Migraines certainly can occur in children and often run in families." In fact, according to the Migraine Research Foundation in the US, migraine is classified as a neurological disease, and approximately 10 per cent of school-age children will suffer from them.
The most common migraine triggers in children are inadequate or altered sleep, skipped meals, stress, changes in weather, bright lights, loud noises, strong odours and hormonal fluctuations.
"If you think your child is having migraines, it's best to see your doctor to confirm the diagnosis," Christie says. "And it's useful to treat your child at the first sign of a migraine, rather than waiting until it's unbearable. Migraines can be difficult to manage, depending on their frequency and severity, but your doctor can prescribe other medications that may help. The initial treatment may include giving paracetamol and ibuprofen at the same time; it's also important to then have your child lie down in a dark room and have a sleep."
*Always read the label. Use only as directed. Incorrect use could be harmful. Consult your healthcare professional if symptoms persist. Do not give to babies under 3 months. Seek medical advice for children less than 1 year.
This article is for general information only and not intended as a substitute for medical advice. All information presented on these web pages is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. In all health related matters, always consult your healthcare professional.
Always read the label. Use only as directed. Incorrect use could be harmful. If symptoms persist consult your healthcare professional.