Aching Heads and Tummies
Headaches and stomachaches are the most common childhood complaints – apart, perhaps, from “I’m bored!”
Just like adults get an occasional headache or stomachache, babies and children can get them, too.
Often, they are due to a virus, strep throat or sinus infection, but sometimes they have other triggers. If they become a regular occurrence, it is important to discover what the trigger is, so you can help your child stay pain-free.
My teenage daughter often gets headaches. What are some possible causes?
Anything that throws your daughter off kilter, including:
- Extreme hunger or thirst
- Lack of sleep
- Hormonal changes during her cycle
- Specific foods such as aged cheese, chocolate, seafood or food additives like MSG
- Seasonal or weather changes
- Sensitivity to light, sound, movement or smells
- Schedule changes. Even an enjoyable change such as taking a vacation can sometimes cause a headache!
With all those possibilities, how can I hope to identify the problem?
Often, it is not one specific thing that triggers a headache but a combination of factors. For example, your daughter might be okay after not getting enough sleep for one night, but after the second night of too little shut-eye, she’ll get a headache. To pinpoint what’s causing the problem, keep a headache diary.
One important caveat: Whenever a headache is accompanied by a high fever, stiff neck or incoherent, confused behavior, seek immediate medical attention.
You should also see a doctor if you think your child’s headache is due to a head injury.
What’s the difference between a headache and a migraine?
Tension or muscle contraction headaches are common, garden-variety headaches that feel dull and achy. Your head feels like it’s being squeezed.
Migraine or vascular headaches cause throbbing, pounding pain, are debilitating and can cause vomiting. If your child has a migraine, he or she may feel light-headed or dizzy and be sensitive to light, smells or sound.
Every child (and adult) experiences it uniquely, but if migraines run in your family, your child may have inherited the proclivity.
What’s the best treatment for a headache?
The best thing is sleep.
To make your child more comfortable, lay a cool cloth on her forehead and gently massage her temples. You can give an over-the-counter pain medication, such as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (Advil or Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
If your child suffers from migraines, her doctor will prescribe medication. Teach her to take this medication as soon as she feels a migraine coming on; many people can tell when they are about to get one.
My daughter often complains that her tummy hurts after a meal.
One of the most common causes of chronic recurring abdominal pain is constipation. Ask your daughter about her bowel movements – not about their frequency but, rather, the consistency of the stool. It should always pass easily; if it doesn’t, she is probably constipated.
Drinking plenty of fluids and eating lots of healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains, should help.
My daughter sometimes says her food tastes funny, often right before getting a stomachache.
She may have Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), which includes symptoms of burning, stinging sensations in the middle of the body, just above the belly button.
Give her an over-the-counter antacid medication, like TUMS. If she then feels better, she probably has GERD.
Other helpful remedies include:
- Eat smaller meals.
- Stay away from fried, fatty and spicy foods.
- Avoid constrictive clothing.
- Use phone books to elevate her sleeping position.
What other things cause stomach problems?
If your daughter has diarrhea, gas or bloating after eating, this may indicate that she is lactose intolerant, which is something you can speak about to her doctor.
Keep a stomachache diary of when and where she gets the pain, what makes it better or worse, and anything else that is going on in her life.
Here’s another caveat: If severe pain starts around the belly button and then moves off to the right side of the stomach – accompanied by vomiting, fever and a rigid, tender abdomen – appendicitis must be considered. In that case, seek immediate medical attention.
My son complains of a stomachache every morning. Could this be stress?
Do his stomachaches occur only on school days? If so, you need to look into school stresses, like problems with teachers, peers or academic work that’s too challenging.
Whatever you do, make sure he keeps going to school. If he doesn’t want to eat breakfast, give him a light snack, like crackers, to eat when he gets to school and his stomach has settled down.
Paul Protter, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Sunnyvale Center. Advice is not intended to take the place of an exam or diagnosis by a physician.