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Migraine in children and young people

Migraine in children and young people

Migraine can affect people of all ages, event very young children. Over 10% of school aged children have migraine and they can feel worried, frightened and isolated during an attack. It is therefore important that understanding is shown to children affected by migraine.

What is migraine?

Migraine is a much-misunderstood condition, often thought of as 'just a headache'. In reality, migraine is extremely debilitating, with those affected unable to participate in their normal daily activities. Migraine affects the whole body and can result in many symptoms. Although a severe headache is common in adults, it is less of a feature in children, for whom abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting may be the key symptoms, sometime without the presence of a headache at all.

Most cases of childhood headache are an isolated occurrence and the cause of the headache is clear such as a bump on the head or an infection such as a common cold. In children with migraine, the headache may also be accompanied by:

A migraine attack in children may last for as little as an hour, but can be as long as three days and the symptoms resolve completely between attacks. However, a child can feel 'washed out' for a couple of days after an attack. The frequency of attacks varies, but the average is one per month. Migraine affects both boys and girls and can occur at any age, although there are peaks at which they begin; age five and also at 10-12 years (after which it becomes more common in girls, who often experience their first attack around puberty). There is no 'test' for migraine, so diagnosis depends in the history and pattern of attacks.

Abdominal migraine

In at least 4% of children, the predominant symptom of migraine is abdominal pain, possibly without headache, or the headache is mild. If a child has episodic attacks o abdominal pain (the pain does not come and go during the attack itself) which may also be associated with increased sensitivity to light and sound; appearing pale or flushed, dislike of food, nausea and vomiting, changes to bowel movements, and which cannot be attributed ti another cause, it is likely to be migraine.

If you suspect a child is affected by migraine:

Discuss this with the parent/ guardian, it is important that a doctor is consulted so that the diagnosis can be confirmed.

The 'aura'

Around 20% of children with migraine will experience 'aura'. This usually takes the form of visual disturbances, such as blurred vision, flashing lights, blind spots or zigzag patterns. Less common symptoms include pins and needles, weakness of limbs, or speech disturbances. Younger children may not have the vocabulary to describe what is happening to them, and say things like 'I can't see' or ' the sun/ light is hurting my eyes'. The aura phase of the attack- which can be very frightening for the child- can last up to 30 minutes, and usually precedes the headache/ abdominal pain by 20-30 minutes.

How does migraine affect the child?

As with adults, migraine in children is a disabling condition which will prevent the child from continuing with normal daily activities. However, much can be done to help reduce the length and/or severity of an attack and help a young person get back to normal. It can also be suprising how quickly a child or young person can recover after a migraine attack.

How to help during an attack


Often young people do not require medication to treat their migraine, and will recover well with rest and/ or sleep. Vomiting will also sometimes ease or relieve the attack. Over the counter analgesics, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen may help (aspirin based products should not be given to children under 16 years old). Some young people with migraine may also have prescribed medications from the GP.

Future attacks

If appropriate, speak to the parent/ guardian regarding the child's migraine, possible triggers and how to avoid or limit these during Scouting activities, and how best to help if the child experiences as attack whilst in your care.

Why do children get migraine?

There is still much to learn about migraine, but common triggers can include:

Further support
Contact national charity Migraine Action (registered charity no. 207783).
Tel: 0116 275 8317
E-mail: info@migraine.org.uk

Information written in partnership with Migraine Action


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