Headaches (non-migraine)

BY LINDA STEVENSON, PhD, RN, FNP-C, PEDIAQ SENIOR NURSE PRACTITIONER

Summer viral illnesses are in full force and headaches are often associated with them. We see this frequently when our children have a cold or the flu. Usually these headaches are short-lived and not unexpected with a viral illness.

Other types of headaches are those caused by muscle tension and/or stress. Your child will complain that their neck feels tight and sore, and there is a feeling of tightness around their head. Middle school and high school teens are very susceptible to these types of headaches, particularly during the school year. Hours spent hunched over a computer to study for exams or write a paper, create muscle tension and stress leading to a dual headache.

Your child grinding their teeth or clenching their jaw tightly during sleep can cause headaches. A visit to the dentist and possibly a bite guard may help. And sometimes a headache can simply be as a result of being hungry or overtired. The frequent coughing we see in children when they are having an asthma recurrence can also cause a severe headache. 

Sinus headaches are common in Texas, particularly if one has allergies with frequent sinus congestion. Frontal sinus headaches aren’t usually seen until after age 10 when the frontal sinus is fully formed. Your child will complain of pain in the forehead area between their eyebrows. If other sinuses are involved they may complain that their face hurts. Viruses cause most sinus problems, but you want to have it checked in case it is a bacterial infection and antibiotics are needed.

Then there are the more serious reasons for a headache, such as meningitis or encephalitis. These are scary illnesses. Your child will complain of a headache but also a stiff neck and there may be vomiting, fever and confusion. You should always call your pediatrician if your child has a headache with a stiff neck and is unable to touch their chin to their chest. When the headache first occurs they may be able to do it but as the headache worsens and causes significant pain they will not be able to bend their head forward. If your child has any confusion, slurred speech, is difficult to awaken or is unsteady walking call your pediatrician right away and be prepared to head to the hospital ER.

Anytime a headache lasts over 3 days, or if headaches are a chronic problem for your child, a visit to your pediatrician is warranted. Also if your child repeatedly awakens with a headache that initially improves and then you notice it lasts longer each day, see your pediatrician.

Mild headaches can be treated with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Have your child lie down and rest with no TV, video games or books until they feel better. If they are able to sleep usually they will wake up headache free or improved. Teach your teen how to do neck stretches to ease tight muscles. If stress is the source of their headache help them to talk out their problems, stresses and concerns.

Headaches can be of mild concern or very serious, when in doubt it never hurts to call your pediatrician.