Demystifying headaches: Kids suffer from migraines, too

This article was written by Scott Henjum and originally appeared in the Portland Monthly 2017 Kids’ Health Annual magazine.

Like adults, children can suffer from migraine headaches. 

“Migraines are the leading cause of recurring headaches in kids,” says Dr. Yoon-Jae Cho, a pediatric neurologist at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. “There are signs and symptoms of migraine headaches that differentiate them from other types of headaches. These include aversion to bright lights and loud noises, nausea and sometimes vomiting, and chronic abdominal pain.”

Dr. Cho adds that migraines tend to run in families. Boys tend to develop migraines at a younger age – around 5 to 10 years old – and they often grow out of them. Girls, however, tend to develop them when they are a little older, often in adolescence, and have migraines into adulthood.

“When kids have migraines, they usually want to go to their room turn off all the lights, put a pillow over their head, and sleep it off, which often helps. Unfortunately, that takes kids out of their normal routine and often results in missed school,” Dr. Cho says.

Children, like adults, can get relief from migraines with medications.

Over the past two decades, several drugs have been developed that are quite effective at treating migraines, and some of these have been approved for use in children.

People often have specific triggers for their migraines, says Dr. Cho. “For some, it might be consumption of certain foods, such as sharp cheeses or dark chocolate, or additives such as MSG,” he says. “For others, it might stress, or not getting enough sleep.”

It is often very informative for patients to keep a headache journal and make note of dietary and other activities the day of, or prior to, suffering from a headache.

Kids who claim to be experiencing the “first and worst” headache of their lives should be evaluated, says Dr. Cho. Other red flags include headaches and vomiting that only occur first thing in the morning and improve throughout the day, as well as associated changes in personality or problems with strength, balance or coordination.

Children may also experience tension headaches, which can be common among school-age kids. The primary symptom of a tension headache is aches on both sides of the head, which can be caused by stress, eye strain and poor posture.

To avoid both types of headaches, Dr. Cho recommends staying hydrated, eating healthfully, exercising regularly and getting plenty of sleep.


If your child is experiencing headaches, talk with your pediatrician or call OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital at 503 346-0644.