How common are headaches in children and adolescents?

Headaches are common in children and adolescents. Among children ages 5 to 17 years of age, 20% have reported getting headaches. The most common types of headaches in this age group are tension headaches (reported by 15%) and migraine (reported by 5%). Many parents worry that their child’s headache is the sign of a brain tumor or serious medical condition. However, less than 3% of headaches are the result of these conditions. Many headaches in children and adolescents are the result of stress and lifestyle issues.

What types of headaches are seen in children and adolescents?

The International Headache Society lists more than 150 headache types. In general, headaches are broken down into four main categories:

  • Migraine. These are episodic (occurs a few times a month) severe headaches with sensitivity to light and noise followed by nausea and vomiting. Migraine can be hereditary. About 60% of people who have a migraine also have an immediate family member (mother, father, sister, brother) who have migraine.
  • Episodic tension (less than 15 days/month), chronic (more than 15 days/month) daily headache, or chronic non-progressive headache. These headaches occur daily or a few times a month, but patients do not experience the symptoms of migraine listed above.
  • Mixed headache syndrome. These are a combination of migraine and chronic non-progressive (tension) headaches. Mixed headache syndrome is also called chronic migraine or transformed migraine. Patients with mixed headache syndrome have headaches more than 15 days/month.
  • Traction and inflammatory headaches. These headaches may be due to an illness or brain disorder – for example, a brain tumor or bleeding within the

Cleveland Clinic classifies headaches in children and adolescents by when the headaches start, how long they last, and how often they occur. The general categories of headaches are:

  • Acute headaches. These headaches occur suddenly for the first time with symptoms that may resolve within a short period of time. Acute headaches are a common reason for visits to a pediatrician’s office and/or an emergency room. Children or adolescents who go to the emergency room with acute headaches may have migraine or tension headaches. However, there are many other conditions that may cause acute headaches. These include simple illnesses (such as flu, infection, or fever), sinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses), pharyngitis (inflammation or infection of the throat), otitis (ear infection or inflammation), or be the result of a blow to the head (trauma). In athletes, exertion may cause headaches.

In rare cases, acute headaches can be a sign of a more serious medical condition, such as meningitis (an infection or inflammation of the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord), encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), hemorrhage (bleeding within the brain), or tumor. In addition to headaches, children and adolescents with these problems usually have neurological symptoms including stiff neck, seizures, morning vomiting, balance difficulty, vision problems, and weakness on one side of the body.

  • Acute recurrent headaches or migraines. – Migraines are moderate-to-severe headaches with symptoms that last from 1 to 4 hours and usually occurs 2 to 4 times per month. The pain is often described as throbbing and affects the front or both sides of the head. Common symptoms of migraine in children and adolescents include pale color (pallor), nausea and vomiting, and irritability. The child may also be very sensitive to light, noise or smells, and want to sleep.
  • Chronic nonprogressive headaches or tension headaches. These are daily or frequent headaches or headaches that come and go over a prolonged period of time without causing neurological symptoms. Common causes include stress, tension, anxiety, and depression. This is the most common type of headache in adolescents. If it occurs more than 15 days/month along with frequent school absences and medication overuse, see a headache specialist.
  • Chronic progressive headaches. These are headaches that get worse and happen more often over time. These are the least common type of headache. When chronic progressive headaches occur along with other neurological symptoms (for example, weakness, balance problems, and visual disturbances), they can be the sign of such brain conditions as an abnormal build-up of fluid in the brain (hydrocephalus), inflammation of the brain, tumor, or other conditions. brain.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/25/2017.


  • Cleves C, Rothner AD. Headache in Children and Adolescents: Evaluation and Diagnosis, including Migraine and its Subtypes. Chapter 6. In: Tepper SJ, Tepper DE, eds. The Cleveland Clinic Manual of Headache Therapy. New York: Springer 2011:81-92.
  • Cleves C, Rothner AD. Diagnosis of Childhood Periodic Syndromes, Tension-Type Headaches, and Daily Headache Syndromes. Chapter 7. In: Tepper SJ, Tepper DE, eds. The Cleveland Clinic Manual of Headache Therapy. New York: Springer 2011:93-103.
  • Rothner AD. Treatment of Pediatric and Adolescent Headaches. Chapter 15. In: Tepper SJ, Tepper DE, eds. The Cleveland Clinic Manual of Headache Therapy. New York: Springer 2011:209-24.
  • National Headache Foundation. Children’s Headache Disorders. Accessed 3/27/2017.

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