Migraines: Different Symptoms for Adults and Children

Migraines aren't just for adults. In fact, approximately 10 percent of children suffer from them too and countless more go undiagnosed. That's because migraines often look different in children than they do in adults.

The Migraine Research Foundation defines migraine as a neurological disease with head pain and associated symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sensitivity to touch, sound, light, and odors, abdominal pain, and mood changes. While children generally have fewer and shorter migraine attacks than adult sufferers, childhood migraine can be just as disabling. Migraines in children can also present with symptoms that aren't always associated with classic migraines like stomach pain, cyclic vomiting and pain on both sides of the head, instead of one-sided pain. They may not experience auras.

The following statistics from the Migraine Research Foundation uncover the nuances of childhood migraines:

  • Half of all migraine sufferers have their first attack before age 12. Even infants can have migraines. Migraine has been reported in children as young as 18 months.
  • Before puberty, boys suffer from migraine more often than girls. The mean age of onset for boys is 7, and for girls it is 11. As adolescence approaches, the incidence increases more rapidly in girls than in boys,possibly because of changing estrogen levels.
  • By age 17, as many as 8 percent of boys and 23 percent of girls have experienced a migraine.
  • The prognosis for children with migraine is variable. However, 60 percent who had adolescent-onset migraine report ongoing migraines after age 30. The prognosis for boys tends to be better than for girls.

Many children's migraines go undiagnosed because the symptoms that accompany their headache can be far more noticeable than their headache. For example, a child who complains of fatigue, stomach pain and vomiting may also complain of headache, but his other symptoms take center stage. His parents and doctor may assume he has a virus or other illness. Many children also experience migraine events that don't manifest with head pain at all, but with symptoms like vomiting or visual or auditory changes. These are called migraine equivalents.  

Symptoms to Look For

Doctors recommend parents seek medical attention whenever a child has severe or repeated symptoms. When a child has several incidents or symptoms that may point to migraine, doctors will ask parents to document the circumstances surrounding the incident and keep a history of events. This migraine diary should include: the date, time and a description of the pain and symptoms, any triggers, medication or action taken to relieve the pain, and time and nature of relief. Doctors will use this information along with the family and patient's medical history to rule out other conditions and make a diagnosis.

Once migraine has been diagnosed, treatment will depend on how old the child is and how frequent and severe his symptoms are. Some children only require sleep and over-the-counter pain medications like Tylenol or ibuprofen. Others require prescription medication to treat pain and other symptoms. Migraine specialists agree that prevention is the best medicine. They'll ask parents to continue keeping a thorough history of all migraine events in hopes of finding triggers - foods, habits, circumstances or conditions associated with their child's migraines. If consistent triggers are identified, parents can help their children avoid them and prevent migraine attacks.

See a pediatrician or pediatric neurologist if you suspect your child may be experiencing migraines.


Migraine Research Foundation

Migraines in Children