Migraines don’t just affect adults. Kids get them, too. Migraines are more than just a bad headache, and when children get them, it often can be worse, especially because they don’t understand why they’re getting them. You can help your child prevent migraines by learning about their triggers and then trying to avoid them.
When you think about someone getting a migraine, you’re probably thinking of an adult. But children get migraines, too. Migraines in kids are the same disease that affects adults, but it impacts them in different ways. Children’s migraines typically affect both sides of their head, whereas adult migraines more often are one-sided. In addition, children’s migraine attacks are often shorter than adult migraines. However, childhood migraines can be disabling, causing children to miss school, sports and other activities.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
A migraine is more than just a bad headache. A migraine is a neurological disease that causes various symptoms, including:
Migraines often start mild and proceed to get worse. They usually last from 30 minutes to several hours, but some migraines can last up to several days. In addition, migraines are recurring, meaning they keep coming back.
Migraines affect children of all ages, including infants. Up to 2.5% of children younger than 7 years old have had a migraine. By the age of 10, about 5% of children have experienced a migraine. The prevalence of migraine continues to go up throughout childhood. Approximately 10% of children ages 5 to 15 get migraines, and 28% of teenagers have gotten a migraine.
In early childhood and before puberty, children assigned male at birth (AMAB) and children assigned female at birth (AFAB) experience migraines equally. In adolescence, migraines affect young women and people AFAB more than young men and people AMAB. As adults, women and people AFAB are three times more likely to have a migraine than men and people AMAB.
Two main types of migraines affect children and adolescents:
An aura is a warning sign that a migraine is about to begin. An aura usually occurs about 30 minutes before a migraine starts. The most common auras are visual and include:
Other auras may include changes in the ability to speak, move, hear, smell, taste or touch.
The four stages of a migraine include prodrome, aura, headache and postdrome:
The most common symptom of migraines in children is pounding or throbbing head pain. In young children, the pain usually affects the front or both sides of their heads. But it can also affect their whole head or just a part of their head.
In younger teens, the pain typically affects both sides of their heads. In older adolescents, the pain tends to be more like what adults get, affecting just one side of their head.
Other pediatric migraine symptoms may include:
Until recently, researchers thought changes in blood flow in the brain caused migraines. Most now believe this can contribute to the pain but it isn’t what starts it. Today, scientists believe migraines are a brain malfunction — a disorder that mainly affects the brain and nerves, but also affects blood vessels. A release of certain chemicals (neurotransmitters) in the brain such as serotonin causes this “malfunction,” which leads to the inflammation and pain of the migraine.
Migraines are genetic, meaning they tend to run in families. Some 60% to 70% of people who have migraine headaches also have an immediate biological family member (mother, father, sister or brother) who has or may have had a migraine.
Most children get migraines randomly — they don’t do anything specific to trigger an attack. But some children have migraine attacks due to a clear trigger or cause.
Things that trigger migraines differ for each person. However, some common migraine triggers in children and adolescents include:
Stress is one of the most common triggers of migraines, especially stress related to school (after-school activities, friends, bullying) and family problems. Carefully reviewing what causes stress can help determine what stress factors to avoid. In some cases, your child may need a counselor to determine the cause of the stress. Stress management includes:
Certain foods or food additives can trigger a migraine. These foods include:
Remembering what foods your child ate before the migraine attack may help identify potential food triggers so they can be avoided. It's a good idea to check food labels for things like nitrates or MSG.
Some medications may occasionally trigger a migraine. These medications include:
If you think medicines are causing your child’s migraines, ask their provider about other options.
There are many other possible migraine triggers, including:
Gathering details about your child’s migraines is the key to making the diagnosis. Your child’s provider will want you to keep track of your child’s migraine history.
Your child’s history should include a description of current and previous headaches — specifically, how your child feels before, during and after their migraines. You’ll want to collect information on how often their migraines occur, how long they last and any other symptoms. Make sure you’ve gathered the names of medications your child has taken in the past, current medications and names of medications that have worked the best.
After taking your child’s medical history, your child’s provider will perform a physical exam and neurological examination. Based on all the information collected, your child’s provider can usually determine the type and cause of your child’s migraines. Sometimes, they’ll request additional tests, such as lab work, CT or MRI scan.
Pediatric migraine treatment usually involves multiple components. One of the most important factors in treatment is making sure your child is leading an overall healthy lifestyle. Your child’s provider will educate you and your child on everyday practices that may help improve their migraines. These practices may include:
In addition, your child should identify and avoid any possible migraine triggers. Maintaining a headache diary is a good way to help identify your child’s triggers.
Your child’s provider may also recommend finding an effective medication that your child can take when a migraine comes on. These medications should provide pain relief within an hour so your child can continue with their daily activities. The first line of treatment should include over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen. For severe migraines, your child’s provider may prescribe medications such as triptans (for example, sumatriptan).
If your child gets more than one migraine a week, their provider may recommend preventive medications or supplements to reduce their frequency and severity. Medications such as amitriptyline and supplements such as magnesium are taken daily over several months.
Pediatric migraine prevention starts with maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Make sure your child is getting an adequate amount of sleep and managing their stress levels. In addition, your child should eat a healthy diet and make sure to exercise regularly.
Beyond leading a healthy lifestyle, the best way to prevent migraines is to avoid known triggers. Keeping a headache diary can help track triggers so your child can try to avoid them in the future.
Treatment helps most children and adolescents with migraine. Fifty percent of children and adolescents report migraine improvement within six months after treatment. But in about 60% of adolescents who experience their first migraine as an adolescent, migraines may continue off and on for many years.
If your child has a migraine, you can take the following steps to help them until it passes:
If your child has migraine symptoms, you should make an appointment with their healthcare provider. You should take your child in immediately if they have a headache that starts after a head injury or wakes them up from sleeping. In addition, take your child in if they have a severe or sudden headache or one that comes along with other symptoms, like:
These may be a sign of a more serious type of headache.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
There’s nothing worse than seeing your child deal with pain that you can’t take away. If your child gets migraines, get them into their healthcare provider. An early and accurate diagnosis can get them started on appropriate treatment right away. And learn all you can about migraines and your child’s triggers. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be to help your child manage them.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/24/2023.
Learn more about our editorial process.