Headaches and Migraines in Children and Young Adults

Children’s Services Colchester Hospital

Children’s Ward Tel: 01206 746208 or 746209

Children’s Elective Care Unit Tel: 01206 744237

Emergency Department Tel: 01206 742847


Headaches can be a frustrating problem in children and young people. Though common, they are generally not serious.
Approximately 5-8 out of every 10 teenagers get at least one headache a month. Headaches that occur more often can be upsetting and begin to worry you and your family.
Migraines and tension headaches are the most common form of headache in teenagers. About one in ten children under the age of 15 suffers from migraine. The headaches and associated symptoms can have a huge impact on a child’s home and school life but the good news is that modern treatments can be very effective.

More Information

  • Tension – feels like a tight band around head. It is caused by stiffening or tensing up of muscles around the head and/or neck. The pain is usually dull and aching and on both sides of the head but can be at the front and back.
    This type of headache can be brought on by pressure at school or home, arguments with parents or friends and feeling anxious or depressed
  • Migraine – usually described as “throbbing’. The headache is often on one side of the head but can be on both sides. It is often associated with feeling sick and/or vomiting and some children feel light-headed or dizzy. The symptoms can include seeing spots or sensitivity to light, sound or smells.
    There is a tendency for migraines to run in families.

There can be triggers and occasionally they are clearly identified but usually it is not straightforward. Dietary triggers include caffeine, alcohol, chocolate and cheese.
Migraines are not caused by eye problems, other medical conditions or having a particular type of personality. It is much more common for migraines to be brought on by lifestyle triggers like stress, fatigue, missed meals, sleeping in or disruption to sleep and spending long periods on a computer. It is impossible to avoid these completely.

For most children, there is a combination of symptoms that tends to build up, ending in a pounding headache.
During an attack a child often looks pale, feels sick and may actually vomit, and finds light and sound unbearable.
The symptoms can vary in intensity and frequency. Each attack can last from four to 72 hours. Between attacks children are symptom-free and carry on with their usual activities. Some children are able to predict an attack of migraine because of certain symptoms beforehand (which is called an aura). The aura symptoms include flickering lights, spots, partial loss of vision, numbness, pins and needles or speech disturbance.

There is no specific test to diagnose migraine. Diagnosis is made by taking medical history and ruling out other causes of headache. It is helpful if you keep a headache diary.

There is no cure for migraine but various treatments are available to manage it effectively. During an attack, one of the best treatments is to sleep. Many children find lying still in a dark, quiet room helps.
If the child finds simple pain killers help relieve pain it is a good idea to take them. There is a preventative medication which can be used but it needs to be taken every day and takes a few weeks to become effective.

  • Headaches are common.
  • Headaches are not a disease and generally not serious.
  • Keeping a headache diary can be very useful
  • Regular meals and bedtimes can help to keep the number of headaches to a minimum.

After puberty, most boys tend to find that migraines become less troublesome but they may return in later life. Girls tend to suffer from more headaches than boys during teenage years, due to hormonal changes.

  • the headaches are getting worse
  • they wake you up from sleep
  • they are worse in the morning
  • you have persistent vomiting
  • there is any change in behaviour or personality.

The Migraine Trust

Migraine Action