When a Headache is More Than "Just" a Headache

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Did you know that migraine affects 1 in 4 households in the U.S. and more than 1 billion people globally? But do you really know the difference in headaches and migraines, especially the differences in migraines for children, teens, and adults? Discover when a headache is more than "just" a headache and when to seek medical attention for all ages.

Differences in Headache vs Migraine Symptoms

While there can be a gray area between headaches and migraines, each possesses distinctive traits. "Headaches usually affect both sides of the head and are often times brought on by external sources such as looking at a computer or tablet screen for prolonged periods of time," said Dr. Lynn Rankin, neurologist, UnityPoint Clinic. "Headaches are also not associated with the secondary symptoms commonly accompanied by migraines."

Migraines are caused by blood vessels dilating and constricting, causing pulsating and pounding head pain. Depending on a person's age, migraine pains are more typically felt on one side of the head. Secondary symptoms associated with migraines

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • blurred vision
  • sensitivity to light and odors
  • loss of appetite
  • auras
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • fever

These migraine symptoms are common but can also differ depending on a person's age.

Headaches and Migraines in Children

Every migraine is different for every person. A part of this difference is what may trigger a migraine in a younger child. It is easy to dismiss a teen's claim of having a migraine because you assume they do not want to go to school. Or, you may consider your child is over-reacting and feel you need to ignore the drama. Maybe your child is suffering in silence because they can't verbalize their pain and symptoms well. 

Migraine triggers include

  • inadequate sleep
  • skipped meals
  • stress
  • weather changes
  • loud noises and bright lights

"If your child is prone to severe headaches or migraines, take note of what happened that may have triggered them," said Dr. Rankin.

Spotting a migraine in a child is more difficult as the secondary symptoms are more prevalent than head pain. If your child suffers from unexplained nausea, vomiting and dizziness this may point to more painful migraines in the future. You may also notice a change in your child's behavior and demeanor before symptoms occur. These changes may include:

  • loss of appetite
  • irritability
  • yawning
  • food cravings
  • lethargy
  • withdrawal
  • mood swings

If you notice these indicators are often followed by the secondary migraine symptoms stated above, your child may be suffering from migraines.

Headaches and Migraines in Teens

There are times during a teen's development that migraines may develop. Boys going through puberty experience migraines more often than girls going through puberty. Yet teen girls past puberty experience migraines more regularly than boys of the same age. The duration of a migraine in a teen also tends to last longer when compared to migraines in adults and young children. The secondary symptoms most commonly associated with teen migraines include:

  • light sensitivity
  • sound sensitivity

If your child is going through puberty or in their teen years, their complaints about headaches may not be an attempt to stay home from school.

Headaches and Migraines in Adults

Unlike children who experience mainly secondary symptoms and teens who are most commonly affected by light and sound sensitivity, adults can experience many different migraine symptoms. Adults are more likely to experience auras, a type of interference with one's vision that could include bright flashes of light or blurry vision.

Adults may also be able to predict when a migraine is approaching based on common signals. These signals include:

  • constipation
  • depression
  • food cravings
  • hyperactivity
  • irritability
  • neck stiffness
  • uncontrollable yawning

If you are suffering from migraines, try to keep track of symptoms that happen regularly before a migraine hits.

When to Visit the Doctor

While it is easy to blow off a migraine as an intense headache, you could be dealing with pain longer than you have to. If you or your child have begun to experience migraine symptoms recently, reach out to a neurologist today. If you have suffered from migraines for the majority of your life, these are the times when you should go in for another check-up:

  • migraines come on abruptly and are severe
  • you are suffering from a fever, stiff neck, double vision, weakness and numbness along with the head pain
  • head pain hurts worse after coughing, exertion or straining
  • You experience 15 or more migraine days a month

UnityPoint Health neurologists are prepared to work with you and your family to diagnose and treat migraines in people of all ages. Have more headache-free days this year by coordinating care with a neurologist today!