Preventing and treating headaches in adolescence

A teenaged boy with a headache presses his hands to his temples.
Cori Morgan, APRN
Cori Morgan, APRN

Written by Cori Morgan, APRN, nurse practitioner at UK Adolescent Medicine. This post is part of a series written by the team in Adolescent Medicine related to the unique health concerns faced by teens and young adults.

Although they can be concerning for both teens and parents, headaches during adolescence are a common part of growing up.

In fact, about 90 percent of adolescents experience a headache by the time they turn 18. Headaches may be sharp or dull; they may be associated with nausea or light sensitivity; and they may be located in the front, back or sides of the head.

Prevention and treatment

For teenagers and young adults, headaches have a wide array of triggers, many of which can be identified and corrected with simple lifestyle changes. Here are some tips to help you prevent headaches:

  • Drink at least eight glasses of water per day, more if you’re active.
  • Get a minimum of eight hours of sleep daily.
  • Exercise at least three days a week.
  • Limit screen time – including television, smartphone and computer – to two hours a day.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet that includes five to nine servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily.
  • Limit junk food (fried and processed foods and sugary drinks) and don’t skip meals.
  • Limit the use of over-the-counter medications to two days per week and avoid aspirin.

If you do experience headaches, try these tips for treatment:

  • Identify factors that trigger headaches. Common triggers include bright lights, certain odors, smoke, oversleeping or lack of sleep, food, or temperature changes in the home or environment.
  • Keep a headache diary to help track the characteristics and patterns of your headaches. This can help you figure out what’s causing them.
  • If you are prescribed a medication, take it as directed.
  • Apply a cold compress to your head.
  • Sit in a cool, quiet and stress-free environment.

A sign of something more serious

Although most headaches are nothing to be worried about, some can be a sign of more serious health concerns. Talk to your parents about making a doctor’s appointment if you have:

  • Headaches that force you to miss school, cause a decline in academic performance or limit your participation in extracurricular activities.
  • Headaches that cause you to wake up from sleep or are more severe when you are lying down.
  • Headaches after a recent trauma or fall.
  • Neurological symptoms such as weakness, confusion or seizure activity that occur with headaches.
  • Persistent nausea and vomiting.
  • Sudden and severe onset of headaches.
  • Progressive headaches, or headaches that get worse over time.
  • Headaches that do not respond to treatment.
  • Headaches and a medical history that increases risk of severe health concerns, including sickle cell disease, immune deficiency, history of malignancy, bleeding disorders, cardiac disease or recent head trauma.

Next steps:

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