Headaches, while worrisome to parents, can be a normal part of childhood. Some children will never experience a headache. Others will complain almost daily. There are two major types of headaches: tension-type and migraine-type.

Tension-type Headaches

These usually occur more frequently than migraine-type and have a somewhat predictable pattern (every afternoon, after reading for long periods, etc.). Tension- type headaches can range from mild, not interfering with daily activities, to severe, requiring one to have to lay down and rest. These headaches usually come on somewhat gradually and are not typically associated with vomiting (although nausea is not uncommon).

Migraine-type Headaches

These typically occur less frequently, once a month to a couple of times per year. Migraine-type headaches usually come on quickly and suddenly and are not as predictable. They are often severe enough to require a child to lay down in a dark room and even need to sleep before the headache gets better. Migraine headaches are commonly associated with nausea or vomiting. Sometimes, children experience an “aura” that precedes a migraine-type headache. Auras can be visual (seeing unusual colors or spots) or olfactory (smelling things like burnt toast or other smells).


Most children respond well to over-the-counter pain relievers for both tension-type and migraine-type headaches. Tylenol or Ibuprofen are good to keep on hand. It is very important to treat the headache as soon as the child thinks a headache is starting. This offers the best chance that the pain reliever will help.

  • It is always recommended a child have an eye exam if they start experiencing headaches, as vision problems are a common cause of headaches.
  • If a child is experiencing a sudden increase in headache frequency, severity, or a change in the character of their headaches, they need to be seen.
  • Headaches waking a child from a deep sleep, or headaches associated with a decline in school work or normal functioning are never considered normal and warrant an immediate evaluation.
  • Keep a log of your child’s headaches to bring with you to your appointment. This helps identify frequency and triggers. The log should include timing of the headache, but also factors that might have contributed (foods recently eating, activity when the headache happened, time of day).