This guidance refers to children and young people up to 16 th birthday, or 18th birthday if the young person prefers to be seen in a paediatric setting.

Headache is one of the commonest problems seen in children, and is nearly always primary (idiopathic) in origin. Headaches caused by brain tumours are very uncommon (0.3% of children with headaches have a brain tumour, and 0.03% of children with headaches and no red flags have a tumour) although this is the perennial concern of doctors and parents alike. This guidance helps clinicians to:

  • Distinguish between primary and secondary headaches
  • Diagnose and manage primary headaches appropriately

Out of Scope

Management of secondary headaches.


Nearly all brain tumours and other secondary headaches can be identified on the basis of the history and examination alone.


Determine whether the patient gets more than one type of headache, and for each type establish the following seven features of a typical headache attack

  • Location
  • Quality – e.g. throbbing, stabbing
  • Intensity – e.g. can function with pain or incapacitated by it
  • Frequency
  • Duration
  • Other features – e.g. nausea, vomiting, aura, photophobia, phonophobia, autonomic features
  • Effect on other activities (e.g. has to stop)

Determine whether red flags are present – see below

Establish a drug history including frequency of analgesic / triptan use. More than 2 doses of analgesic use per week carry a risk of medication overuse headache

Determine the headache pattern. Generally, intermittent headaches (however frequent) with complete recovery in-between indicate primary headache. Progressive headache with other new symptoms are more suggestive (but not diagnostic of) a secondary cause.

A diary can help to identify triggers for headaches.


  • General examination including height, weight, head circumference (OFC) in under 5 year olds, birthmarks, blood pressure
  • Scalp, neck + upper back for scoliosis, tenderness
  • Cranial nerves to include visual fields and fundoscopy. Look for a head tilt (IVth nerve lesion) or new squint.
  • Look for asymmetry of tone, power + reflexes
  • Test for signs of ataxia, including gait

Red Flags

Headache which:

  • Occurs in a child under 3 years of age
  • Wakes a child / young person from sleep, especially with vomiting
  • Is located in a fixed or unusual location
  • Is triggered by postural change or cough, straining, laughing
  • Is sudden and severe in onset
  • Is associated with fever or coma
  • Comes with academic decline or personality change in older children, or irritability in young children
  • Develops alongside new neurological symptoms e.g. visual loss, new squint, or loss of balance
  • Is associated with new neurological signs on examination, or is associated with faltering growth (young children)
  • Changes substantially and / or suddenly

Where red flags are absent, the likelihood of brain tumour being present is 0.03%

See 'diagnosis' for epidemiology of headaches and brain tumours, below.


  • Where red flags are absent, the likelihood of brain tumour being present is 0.03%
  • Where red flags are absent, determine the primary headache type/s according to the headache features in the table:
Tension-type headache Migraine (with or without aura) Short, severe headaches



Unilateral or bilateral, usually frontal

Unilateral or bilateral, usually temporal


Constant / tightening

Throbbing or banging

Sharp, lightning-like


Mild or moderate

Moderate or severe

Moderate or severe

Effect on activities

Rarely incapacitates patient

Usually incapacitating, and worsened by movement

Relieved by sleep

Restlessness or agitation

Other symptoms


  • Nausea may occur with chronic tension-type headache

Photophobia / phonophobia can be inferred by behaviour

Nausea, vomiting, pallor

Aura symptoms

  • are fully reversible
  • develop over at least 5 minutes and last 5−60 minutes
  • may include visual symptoms such as flickering lights, spots or lines and/or partial loss of vision; sensory symptoms such as pins and needles, speech disturbance, confusion

Idiopathic stabbing headache = none

Cluster headache = autonomic features (e.g. ptosis, midriasis, eye watering). These are very rare in childhood


30 minutes – continuous

2–72 hours

Idiopathic stabbing headache: 1-3 seconds,

Cluster headache / related: longer less than 3 hours

Frequency & Diagnosis Less than 15 days per month = Episodic tension-type headache

More than 15 days per month for more than 3 months =
Chronic tension-type headache
Less than 15 days per month = Episodic migraine (with or without aura)

More than 15 days per month for more than 3 months =Chronic migraine (with or without aura)
Highly variable = Idiopathic stabbing headache
  1. Some headaches are 'unclassifiable', especially in young children who cannot describe their headaches. Even so, most unclassifiable headaches are primary in origin
  2. Tension-type and migraine headaches can occur concurrently in the same patient. The relative incidence can vary over time.
  3. Where tension-type headache develops alongside migraine, consider medication overuse
  4. Aura symptoms occur in only 15% of migraine in childhood / adolescence


  • Headaches with no red flags do not need neuro-imaging
  • Do not refer for/undertake a brain scan in primary headache for reassurance


Information and support for children and young people with headache disorders
  1. Openly explore and address parental / patient concerns about secondary headache (especially brain tumour). Explaining why you think this is unlikely to be the cause of headache (duration of headache disorder, timing of headaches, lack of findings on examination) is likely to reduce anxiety and help with coping with the headache problem, at least in the short term
  2. Include the following in discussions with the child / young person and their carer:
    • A positive diagnosis including an explanation of the type of headache and reassurance that other pathology has been excluded and
    • Recognition that headache is a valid medical disorder that can have a significant impact on the child / young person, but that there is a good chance of improvement with time without preventative treatment and
    • Options for management
  3. Direct the family towards supportive information online, for example Migraine Trust
  4. Explain the risk of medication overuse headache to children and young people who are using acute treatments for their headaches
  5. Counsel that any change in the headache nature especially with new red flags should trigger another GP review

Principles of management of primary headaches

These are threefold:

  • Acute management
  • Lifestyle modifications
  • Preventative treatment
Tension-type headaches
  • Acute management
    • Paracetamol / ibuprofen used sparingly where needed, remembering the risk of medication overuse headache where analgesics are used more than twice per week
    • Self-management includes distraction (especially in young children), topical remedies (e.g. 4Head, Tiger Balm), relaxation, take a walk
    • Encourage staying at school
  • Lifestyle modifications
    • Attention to triggers e.g. self-exerted pressure and mood disorders – school counsellor may help
    • Increase exercise
    • Regular sleep
    • Avoid skipping meals, limit caffeine
  • Preventative treatment
    • Consider acupuncture for children over 12 years where chronic tension-type headache is present and other interventions have not worked. This is not available via paediatric services.
    • No evidence of benefit of any medication
Migraine with / without aura

Please refer to the formulary guidance on management of migraine in children

  • Acute management
    • Rest / sleep where needed
    • Prompt use of NSAID, for example ibuprofen
    • Offer co-use of prochlorperazine, cinnarizine or domperidone where prompt use of NSAIDs alone fails
    • Consider adding or replacing with sumatriptan (unlicensed under 12 years of age) 10mg by nasal spray. Sumatriptan nasal spray is licensed in children aged 12 years or over; oral sumatriptan and zolmitriptan are occasionally recommended by specialist paediatricians for off-label use, more information can be found in the BNF for children.
    • Where analgesics, sumatriptan or zolmetriptan are only partly effective, check they are being used promptly and correctly.
      • Correspondence for school advising on individual acute management may be required
  • Lifestyle modifications
    • Recommend regular sleep
    • Avoid skipping meals
    • Regular exercise with adequate hydration
    • Sunglasses / cap for light-induced migraine, limit caffeine
    • Attention to triggers e.g. self-exerted pressure and mood disorders – school counsellor may help
    • No evidence of benefit of exclusion diets
  • Preventative treatment
    • Explain that there is no curative treatment and that none is certain to work. Most children do not need this if acute management is adequate and lifestyle modifications can be taken on board

Where needed, discuss the benefits and risks of prophylactic treatment for migraine with the child / young person, taking into account their parent or carer's views, own preference, comorbidities, risk of adverse events and the impact of the headache on their quality of life.

  • Consider propranolol or topiramate as first line preventative treatment, which have the best evidence base, over 12 years of age.
  • Advise girls over 12 years that topiramate is associated with a risk of foetal malformations and can impair the effectiveness of hormonal contraceptives. Ensure they are offered suitable contraception if needed.
  • There are no high quality trials of any migraine preventative treatment under 12 years of age. Alternatives to the above include pizotifen, amitriptyline. Do not use Gabapentin (side effects) or Valproate (teratogenicity, side effects).
  • For people who are already having treatment with another form of prophylaxis and whose migraine is well controlled, continue the current treatment as required.
  • Review the need for continuing migraine prophylaxis 6 months after the start of prophylactic treatment.
  • Advise young people with migraine that riboflavin (400 mg once a day, not avaliable on NHS prescription) may be effective in reducing migraine frequency and intensity
  • Oral contraceptives are rarely needed or useful in migraine in young women under 18 years, and are contraindicated in migraine with aura
Mixed Tension-Type Headache and Migraine

Co-morbid migraine and tension-type headache are extremely common

  • Whilst substantial or sudden change in headache type is a red flag, it is usual for young people's predominant primary headache type to vary repeatedly over time particularly in chronic tension-type headache or chronic migraine
  • Consider medication overuse headache as a possible cause where analgesics are used more than twice a week (see below)
  • Acute treatment
    • Treat only the migraine headaches, as above
    • Aim to prevent frequent analgesic use of tension-type headache as this may lead to medication overuse
    • Consider topical treatment for tension-type headache
  • Lifestyle modification
    • As above for migraine
  • Preventative treatment
    • As above for migraine, where required
Medication Overuse Headache (MOH)

The key to successful treatment is explanation of the problem and what the child / young person and family can expect:

  • Overuse of symptomatic treatments for headache may be the cause of, or can contribute to, chronic headache
  • MOH is treated by withdrawing the overused medication.
  • Headache symptoms are likely to get worse before they improve. Withdrawal headache typically lasts between 2 and 3 weeks, and may be associated with other symptoms such as restlessness, nausea
  • Withdrawal of overused medication will result in either complete resolution of the headache (if MOH is the only cause of the headache) or return to the original headache type (if frequent medication had been used to treat this type)
  • Most people can withdraw successfully with the right support and encouragement

Advise the child / young person / parent or carer:

  • To stop all analgesic medication (including triptans) abruptly for at least 1-2 months (opioids should be slower if in use)
  • Consider migraine preventative treatment, if migraine was present prior to medication overuse headache, to facilitate analgesic withdrawal
  • Offer follow-up appointment in 1-2 months to provide support during withdrawal
  • If no response to withdrawal reconsider the primary headache diagnosis
Short Severe Headaches

These are uncommon. Seek specialist advice.

Devon Formulary Chapter 4 Central Nervous System – Management of migraine


Referral Criteria

Emergency referral if:
  • Acute headaches with fever or coma contact the acute paediatrics via the on-call team
Urgent referral:
  • All other red-flag headaches for review within 2 weeks
Routine referral if:
  • Other headaches for which the primary headache type is unclear / short and severe / not described in this guideline, and / or where the management plan cannot be followed

Referral Instructions

To refer as emergency:
  • Contact the acute paediatrics via the on-call team
To refer as urgent/routine:

e-Referral selection:

  • Priority: Urgent/Routine
  • Speciality: Children's & Adolescent Services
  • Clinic type: Neurology
  • Service: DRSS-Eastern-Child & Adolescent Services-Devon CCG - 15N

Referral Form

DRSS referral form

Information for children / young people and their parents / carers

Migraine Trust – information for young people

My Cleveland Clinic – information for families on a number of childhood / adolescent conditions – look for 'headaches in children and adolescents'

Supporting Information


NICE Guidance on Headaches in over 12's (CG150), 2012

NICE Clinical knowledge summary on Medication Overuse

Fifteen minute consultation: headache in children under 5 years of age, McCrea N, Howells R. Arch Dis Child Educ Pract Ed 2013;98: 181–185.

Pathway Group

This guideline has been signed off by the Eastern Locality on behalf of NHS Devon CCG.

Publication date: December 2016


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