School is not the only thing that begins in the fall. For many children, the stress of returning to classes brings an unwelcome return to headaches.
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“It’s common for parents to suddenly hear their children complaining of headaches at this time of year,” notes pediatric headache specialist A. David Rothner, MD.
Combining an abrupt change in schedule with new social and academic pressures can add up to big stress for some kids.
2 common headache patterns
Children are subject to migraine as well as tension, or chronic, headaches.
Parents can easily recognize a child’s migraine coming on, says Dr. Rothner. Signs of this severe, occasional headache include:
- Looking pale
- Acting grouchy
- Being bothered by light and noise
- Not wanting to eat, nausea and vomiting
For most children, the migraine ends within two hours on its own or with simple analgesics such as Tylenol or ibuprofen. “Many kids fall asleep, which almost invariably ends the migraine,” he adds.
Tension or chronic headaches are milder, frequent or near-daily headaches that don’t bring on the nausea or other features of migraine and tend to last most of the day.
About 1 percent of youngsters develop chronic headaches. “Youngsters with chronic daily headaches seem to be extraordinarily sensitive to the start of school and the associated stress that this brings, and typically fare the worst,” says Dr. Rothner.
He sees a spike in young chronic headache patients in the first weeks of classes.
Encouraging healthy habits
When your child’s headaches start cropping up, take a look at his or her lifestyle habits, says Dr. Rothner. To minimize the likelihood of headache, encourage your child to:
- Eat three meals a day with healthy snacks in between.
- Drink at least six 8-ounce glasses of water daily.
- Be physically active or exercise at least three times a week.
- Sleep at least eight hours every night.
- Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, with whole grains and lean protein.
Also, keep an eye on how much over-the-counter headache pain medication your child is taking. “We try to limit children who use over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen to taking them twice a day, two days a week,” Dr. Rothner says.
“If they use over-the-counter pain relievers three to four times a week, for weeks on end, they can get ‘rebound’ headaches that are worse.”
Over time, taking too many pain relievers can also cause digestive problems, such as an upset stomach and stomach inflammation, he notes.
Time for a doctor visit?
“Once children start overusing medication or missing too much school (including arriving late and leaving early), these are red flags,” says Dr. Rothner. “They should prompt a visit to your family doctor or pediatrician.”
The same is true if your child’s headaches become more frequent despite practicing the healthy lifestyle habits mentioned above.
If needed, your pediatrician or family doctor can refer your child to a pediatric neurologist with expertise in headaches. Good care will help your child step right back into the swing of things at school.