Between 5% and 15% of children between 7 and 14 regularly experience symptoms of migraines. But the characteristics of migraine headaches in kids and teens may differ from migraine headaches in adults. Nurse practitioners from the University of Alabama in Mobile and private practice in Florida reviewed the differences in migraines between kids and adults.
Generally, childhood migraines are short-lived. The headache usually develops rapidly and lasts anywhere from 1 to 48 hours, causing severe and throbbing pain and pain on both sides of the head (in adults, migraine pain usually occurs on one side of the head). Kids with migraines may look ill and pale, feel nauseated or vomit, cry, and complain of fatigue. They may also have abdominal pain, experience motion sickness, and feel sensitive to light and smells. In children, migraines also tend to recur more often than they do in adults.
What puts a child at risk for migraines? Three quarters of kids with migraines have at least one family member who gets migraines. In addition, exposure to certain migraine triggers can also increase the likelihood of migraines in children who are sensitive to them. Foods such as dairy products, chocolate, and citrus fruits; additives such as monosodium glutamate and aspartame; and skipping meals, irregular sleep, stress, and fatigue are all possible triggers that can contribute to the development of migraines in children.
There's no specific test that can definitively diagnose migraine, but if a child regularly experiences migraines, doctors use physical and neurological exams and medical histories to arrive at a diagnosis. In some cases, especially in younger children, doctors may use imaging tests such as computed tomography (CT) scans to check for other causes of the child's headaches.
Parents and children should avoid known triggers so that headaches can be avoided. Other strategies for coping with migraines include sleeping during an attack, applying ice or warm packs to the head, and using pain relievers, including acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) and ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin). Because migraines become more intense more quickly in children than adults, it's important to offer pain relief as soon as headache pain starts. In addition to traditional pain relievers, some children who have regular migraines may need to take medicines that may prevent future migraines (these medicines are called prophylactics).
What's new in migraine research? Although the Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved triptan drugs for use in children, they have been used by adults to stop migraine headaches. Currently, researchers are studying whether triptans are safe and effective at stopping migraine pain in kids, too.
What This Means to You: If your child experiences migraines, it's important to maintain regular follow up with your child's doctor, so he or she can monitor your child's condition and check the effectiveness of your child's treatment. Not sure if your child has a migraine? If your child has symptoms of migraine like severe and throbbing head pain, nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and smell, talk to your child's doctor.
Source: Virginia Seay Fleener, MSN, ARNP, BC; Brenda Holloway, MSN, ARNP, BC; The Nurse Practitioner, November 2004
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: April 2005