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Health Tips for Parents

2008 Issues

How can I help control my child’s headaches?


Tension-type and migraine headaches are the third most common cause of absenteeism in school-age children, making it a far more common problem than often perceived.

“We’re realizing that children get headaches earlier in life, and cannot always verbalize what is happening. Parents need to listen to their children, especially if the headaches are waking them up from their sleep, if the pain worsens or keeps them from normal activities,” notes Jason T. Lerner, M.D., assistant director of the Pediatric Neurology Residency Program at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA.

Causes and Symptoms

Health Tips Winter 2008 issue: How can I help control my child’s headaches?Although headaches are most often caused by colds or the flu, a variety of other factors can trigger them. Tension-type headaches are often a response to stress at school or at home. Migraine headaches may be inherited and can be triggered by stress, food or environmental factors, such as noise or bright lights.

Type, severity and duration are factors considered when categorizing a headache. Some guidelines include:

Tension Headache

  • Lasts from 30 minutes to a week
  • Bilateral pain – both sides of the head
  • Squeezing-type pain
  • Mild to moderate in intensity
  • Intensity does not increase with activity
  • No nausea or vomiting
  • No sensitivity to light or sound

Migraine Headache

  • Lasts anywhere from one to 48 hours
  • Unilateral pain – focused on one side of the head
  • Throbbing and pulsating pain
  • Moderate to severe in intensity
  • Intensity increased with activity
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Sensitivity to sound


Headache Diary

If headaches are frequent, Dr. Lerner suggests parents help their child keep a “headache diary” for three months. “Keep a record of when and where the headache occurred, what stressors were present, severity of symptoms, recent meals and if any medications were used,” he says. This is valuable information to take to the doctor to determine the cause of the headaches and create a treatment or prevention plan.


Treatment of childhood headaches is a three-tier approach.

Lifestyle Change 

Eating balanced, nutritious meals (especially breakfast), keeping regular sleep patterns and getting physical exercise can help keep headaches at bay. Caffeine, processed meats, salt and tomato sauce can trigger headaches in some children.

Abortive therapy 

Over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can help relieve mild to moderate tension and migraine headaches and work best when used at the onset of a headache. A physician may prescribe stronger medications. Always consult a doctor about the medications your child is taking for a headache.

Prophylactic therapy 

To decrease the frequency of migraine headaches, your doctor may prescribe daily medication when abortive medications are not effective enough. These may include anti-seizure medications, anti-depressants, hypertensive medications and vitamins. The more parents know about headaches – their symptoms, prevention and treatments – the easier it will be to help their child manage symptoms.

This information is provided courtesy of the pediatricians at the Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA. UCLA Health pediatricians are conveniently located in your neighborhood. In addition to our Children’s Health Center in Westwood, we have offices in Brentwood, Culver City, Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, and West Los Angeles. See list of physicians by location or for more information call 1-800-UCLA-MD1 (1-800-825-2631).

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