Summer headaches? Get the facts

Drawing of a child on a hot beach under the sun
Illustration by Fawn Gracey

Staying cool, preventing bug bites and sun protection may be most parents’ top health concerns this season, but the summer weather may also bring about headaches in children. Boston Children’s Hospital child neurologist and headache expert, Dr. Anna Minster, says dehydration and excessive heat can cause headaches in children and teens. She offers the following headache facts to get you and your kids through the next heatwave headache-free.

Children have frequent headaches.

You might be surprised to learn that more than half of children and teens, including infants, have headaches. Headaches are triggered by many things, some of which we can control and some we can’t. Changes in atmospheric pressure during a storm, snoring, grinding teeth, viral infections, fever, certain foods, menstruation and even too much gum chewing can all trigger headaches. Some medications that treat headaches, like ibuprofen, can actually aggravate headaches when taken too often.

Most headaches are benign.

In spite of what an internet search might turn up, Minster says most headaches in children are not caused by a more serious condition.  It’s true that headaches can be a symptom of something else happening in the body, such as dehydration or stress. But for more serious conditions, like brain tumors for example, only 1 percent of patients have headaches and no other symptoms. The fear factor for parents, though, isn’t surprising when you consider how difficult it is for children to explain their symptoms. This is also why your own observations are very important to diagnosis.

Children can have migraines.

One of the most common recurrent headaches is migraine, which affect about 1 in 20 children. Boys under the age of 7 are more likely to have migraines than girls and migraines are more common in girls after puberty. Although adults with migraines typically have a pulsing pain on one side of the head, children often experience a pulsing pain on both sides of the head. But it’s often difficult for children to describe this pain. According to Minster, they may simply say, “It hurts.” Children with migraine may also experience sensitivity to light, noise and smell. Migraine is usually made worse by physical activity. Fifty to 90 percent of children with migraine have a family history of this condition.

A healthy lifestyle can prevent migraines.

Minster always talks to her patients and their parents about how lifestyle can affect migraine and other types of headaches. To help prevent headaches, she encourages patients to drink at least 64 oz. of water a day, eat three healthy meals, not skip breakfast, avoid caffeinated drinks, have a regular sleep schedule and not sleep too little or too much each day. “Managing stress is also huge,” Minster says. “Children can become overwhelmed by school or home life.” Keeping a headache diary can be a helpful tool to help understand what triggers migraines.

Call your doctor about sudden, severe headaches.

Although most headaches are not a sign of serious underlying problem, there are times to call your doctor. If your child’s headache starts suddenly; wakes them up in the middle of the night or from a nap; is caused by laying down, coughing, sneezing or straining; or if your child has a headache that suddenly becomes worse, call your pediatrician. Your doctor will decide if your child needs testing or a referral to a specialist. You may also want to talk to your doctor about the correct dosage of over-the-counter medications that treat headaches, like Tylenol™ and ibuprofen. Your pediatrician will know what’s right for your child.

Headshot of Dr. Anna MinsterAbout our expert: Anna Minster, MD, is a child neurologist in the Neurology Department at Boston Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.





Learn more about the Neurology Department.