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Tension Headache in Children: Care Instructions

Your Care Instructions

Headaches are a common problem for children. Tension headaches are often caused or "triggered" by physical or emotional stress. Frequent use of pain medicine can also make tension headaches more frequent and severe.

Most headaches in children are not a sign of a more serious problem and will get better on their own. Home treatment may help your child feel better faster.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

How can you care for your child at home?

  • Your child should go to a quiet, dark place and relax. Most headaches will go away within 24 hours with rest or sleep. Watching TV or reading can often make the headache worse.
  • Give acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) for pain. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
  • Be careful about using pain relievers every day, because over time this can make your child's headaches worse.
  • Give your child water, juice, and other drinks that do not contain caffeine. This may help the headache go away faster. Water is the best choice.
  • Put a cold, moist cloth or cold pack on the painful area for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Put a thin cloth between the cold pack and your child's skin. Do not use heat on your child's head, because it can make the pain worse.
  • Gently massage your child's neck and shoulders.
  • Do not ignore new symptoms that occur with a headache, such as a fever, weakness or numbness, vision changes, or confusion. These may be signs of a more serious problem.

To prevent headaches

  • Keep a headache diary so you can figure out what triggers your child's headaches. Avoiding triggers may help you and your child prevent headaches. Record when each headache begins, how long it lasts, where it hurts, and what the pain is like (throbbing, aching, stabbing, or dull). Write down any other symptoms that your child has with the headache, such as nausea, flashing lights or dark spots, or sensitivity to bright light or loud noise. List anything that might have triggered the headache. Once you know what things trigger your child's headaches, try to avoid them.
  • Give your child lots of fluids. If your child has kidney, heart, or liver disease and has to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids your child drinks.
  • Make sure that your child gets regular sleep. Most children need to sleep 8 to 10 hours each night.
  • Encourage your child to get regular exercise.
  • Make sure that your child does not skip meals. Provide regular healthy meals.
  • Protect your child from second-hand smoke. Do not let anyone smoke in your house.
  • Find healthy ways to help your child deal with stress. Do not overbook your child's time.
  • Seek help if you think your child may be depressed or anxious. Treating these problems may reduce the number of headaches your child has.
  • Limit the amount of time your child spends in front of the TV and computer.

When should you call for help?

Call your doctor or nurse advice line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has headaches after a recent fall or blow to the head.
  • Your child has a fever with a stiff neck or a severe headache.
  • Your child has new nausea and vomiting, or you cannot keep down food or liquids.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse advice line if:

  • Your child's headache lasts longer than 1 or 2 days.
  • Your child's headaches become more painful or frequent.
  • Your child frequently uses pain medicine to treat headaches.

Where can you learn more?

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.