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Headaches in Children

Headache treatments for children

There are different medicines for treating headaches in children.

What medicines can treat headaches in children?

There are 3 types of medicines to treat headaches in children, called rescue medicines. Rescue medicines don’t stop your child from getting headache, but they can make your child feel better. They include:

  • pain relievers (analgesics)
  • anti-nausea medicines (anti-emetics)
  • antimigraine medicines (triptans)

Pain relievers

Pain relievers (analgesics) work well for migraines and tension-type headaches. Your child needs to take them as soon as a headache starts (within 5 to 20 minutes).

Don’t give your child pain relievers more than 2 or 3 times a week. Pain relievers can cause headaches if you take them regularly for weeks or months.

The 2 main types of pain relievers for headaches in children are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and anti-fever medicines (anti-emetics).

NSAIDs for headaches include:

  • Ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin) is the most common over-the-counter NSAID for treating headaches in children. NSAIDs usually don’t cause side effects other than feeling sick in the stomach (nausea) unless you take them regularly.
  • Naproxen (such as Aleve) is an over-the-counter NSAID for migraines. You can try naproxen if ibuprofen or acetaminophen don’t work. Naproxen can cause stomach problems if you use it regularly. Don’t give your child naproxen more than 3 times a week.
  • Ketorolac (Toradol) is an NSAID for moderate to very bad pain. The most common side effect is belly pain or ulcers if you use it regularly.
  • Diclofenac (Cambia) is an NSAID for moderate to very bad pain and migraines. The most common side effect is belly pain if you use it regularly.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is an anti-fever medicine often used to treat headaches. It usually doesn’t cause side effects.

Talk to your child’s healthcare provider if you have questions about pain relievers for headaches.

Anti-nausea medicines

Some children may have nausea or vomiting along with a headache. Anti-nausea medicines (anti-emetics) help stop nausea and vomiting from happening. They also help headache pain medicines work better. The following anti-nausea medicines are sometimes used with pain relievers to treat headaches:

  • Dimenhydrinate (Gravol) helps with nausea and vomiting. It may cause children to feel sleepy or have a dry mouth or blurred vision.
  • Metoclopramide (Maxeran; Metonia) can help pain relievers work faster. It also helps with nausea and vomiting. Side effects include feeling tired and muscle spasms.
  • Ondansetron (Zofran) prevents nausea and vomiting. Side effects include diarrhea, constipation, feeling sleepy, and being itchy.

Antimigraine medicines

Antimigraine medicines (triptans) are sometimes used for migraines when pain relievers don’t work. They change chemicals in the brain that can cause headaches and pain. It’s important for your child to take an antimigraine medicine as soon as the migraine starts. But your child shouldn’t take them regularly.

Almotriptan (Axert) is the only antimigraine medicine approved in Canada for migraines in children between 12 and 17 years old. Side effects include nausea, feeling weak, dizzy, tired, and tight in the chest.

The following antimigraine medicines are considered safe, but they’re not officially approved for children because they haven’t been studied with this age group:

  • rizatriptan (Maxalt)
  • sumatriptan (Imitrex)
  • zolmitriptan (Zomig)

Your child shouldn’t take antimigraine medicines if they:

  • have high blood pressure
  • take certain antidepressant medicines such as monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors
  • have hemiplegic headaches (a headache that affects 1 side of the body) or basilar migraines (a headache that causes dizziness, vision changes, and trouble moving)

Talk to your healthcare provider about whether these medicines are right for your child.

Are there other ways to treat headaches in children?

Complementary medicine (healthcare some people use along with standard medical treatments and medicines) may help to treat and manage headaches in children.

Research is starting to look at how the following types of complementary medicine might help with children’s headaches:

  • biofeedback
  • acupuncture
  • guided imagery
  • relaxation therapy
  • herbs, minerals, and vitamins
  • chiropractor (no neck adjustments or manipulations)
  • massage therapy
  • aromatherapy and therapeutic-grade essential oils (such as peppermint for pain and lavender for nausea)

Talk to a nurse, social worker, psychologist, or doctor about other ways to treat your child's headaches. They can help you and your child:

  • find out what could be causing the headaches
  • learn to lower stress and manage it 
  • use cognitive behavioral therapy (counselling that helps change negative thoughts and behaviours) for headache
  • learn self-hypnosis to help manage pain

Current as of: October 25, 2021

Author: Pediatric Neurology, Alberta Health Services