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Headaches in Children

Types and Causes of Headaches in Children

Are there different types of headaches?

There are two types of headaches:

  • primary (headaches that just happen, there is no health problem)
  • secondary (caused by something in the body that is not normal)

What are primary headaches?

Migraines and tension-type headaches are the two most common types of primary headaches children get.


A migraine is usually a moderate to severe headache often described as pounding or throbbing. A migraine is most often on one side of the head but can be on both sides of the head. Some children get a feeling or symptom (aura) before or when a migraine starts. Auras are different for everyone, but most are visual (e.g., seeing coloured spots, wavy lines, dots, or lights). An aura can also be a symptom like numbness or weakness.

A migraine can last from 1 to 72 hours. Migraines can get worse when your child is active. Often there is a family history of migraines if your child gets this type of headache. Normally, children who get migraines have times in between the migraines when they do not have headaches (episodic).

With a migraine, your child might:

  • not feel hungry
  • throw up (vomit)
  • have stomach pain
  • have an upset stomach (nausea)
  • be more sensitive to light (photophobia)
  • be more sensitive to sound (phonophobia)

If your child gets complicated migraines, there may be neurological symptoms before, during, or after the headache such as:

  • arm and/or leg weakness
  • double vision (because eye movements are weaker)
  • feeling unsteady when walking

Tension-Type Headaches

A tension-type headache feels like a dull tightening or pressing on the head. There is no nausea with this type of headache. Your child can still do regular activities with a tension headache.

Chronic Daily Headaches

If your child gets migraine or tension-type headaches, he or she might start to get the headaches more often (many or most days out of a month). When this happens, your child might be diagnosed with chronic migraine or chronic tension-type headaches depending on the main type of headache he or she has. Your child might even start with a headache that never seems to go away. This is called new-daily persistent headache and can be hard to treat.

It is not known why the number of headaches increases, but sometimes the increase might happen when your child has other problems like depression or anxiety. If your child gets chronic migraine, chronic tension-type, or new-daily persistent headaches, he or she might:

  • feel dizzy
  • have sleep problems
  • feel tired
  • feel anxious
  • have trouble concentrating
  • be sad

What causes primary headaches?

More is known about migraines than ever before, but what causes them is not fully understood. Migraines do run in families (genetic cause).

During a migraine part of the brain gets more sensitive to things like light and noise and chemicals are released, which might affect the size of the blood vessels.

During a migraine aura, some brain cells “power down” (like a computer) for a few minutes and then “power up” again without causing any harm.

The exact cause of tension-type headaches is not known.

What causes secondary headaches?

There are many different causes of secondary headaches (SH). Health problems which cause headaches are often easy to treat. Common causes of headaches are illnesses (e.g., flu, virus) and too much caffeine or alcohol.

You or your child might worry that the headaches are caused by a brain tumour. Brain tumours are not a common cause of headaches. Your family doctor (or pediatrician) will assess your child to find out what is causing the headaches. If your child has symptoms like unsteady walking or behaviour changes that do not go away between headaches, he or she needs to see a doctor.

Current as of: August 28, 2018

Author: Paediatric Neurology, Alberta Health Services