The whole process can be a real headache, according to a study. 

By Liz Steelman
Updated November 01, 2019

If your children complain of headaches in the first few weeks of school, they might not be lying just to stay home. According to research from Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, children report more headaches during the fall than any other season.

But don’t pass off your child’s headache as just another back-to-school tradition. According to Dr. Howard Jacobs, headache specialist at Nationwide Children’s who works alongside the study’s researchers, the shift from leisurely summer living to the pressures of back-to-school increases adolescent complaints of headaches by more than 30 percent. Changes in academic stressors, schedules, and extracurricular activities combined with too little sleep, infrequent eating, too much caffeine, prolonged sitting, and increased screen time prime students for headaches and migraines.

Researchers at the Comprehensive Headache Clinic at Nationwide Children’s Hospital analyzed 1,300 emergency department visits from the years 2010 through 2014. When visits were grouped by season, complaints of headaches increased in the fall for children five to 18 years old. Elementary school boys ages five to nine were particularly prone to headaches, but complaints subsided as they aged, while for girls, migraines tended to pop up around puberty and lingered into adulthood.

Though most spells will be over come Halloween as the body adjusts to new stressors, the initial pain can be a sign of a bigger problem. When combined with stress, allergies and jaw pain can trigger headaches by irritating the trigeminal nerve. If chronic headaches don’t respond to mild pain relievers like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen, Jacobs urges parents to call the pediatrician.

“Why make your child suffer for awhile and fall behind in school if it can be solved at first symptom?” he says.

Surprisingly, headaches are not a sign your child needs glasses. Jacobs says about 90 percent of his patients come to him only after seeing the optometrist.

Children whose parents have chronic headaches or migraines are especially prone to head pain, as well. “I tell my patients that 80 percent of those I see say mom has it. 15 percent say Dad. And the other 5 percent I tell they’re wrong,” Jacobs jokes. “Headaches and migraines are a hereditary thing.”

Can’t tell the difference between a headache and a migraine? The average child can function throughout the day with a headache without having to lie down. A migraine, however, comes with the added baggage of light and sound sensitivity, nausea, or vomiting.

One particularly large factor in back-to-school headaches is dehydration. But as many schools don’t allow water bottles in class, keeping properly hydrated can be difficult. Jacobs urges children to drink when they can. “You’ll know if you drink enough if you go to the bathroom and your urine is clear like water,” he says.

For high school students, it’s recommended to drink 64 ounces a day. Elementary students need only a little less. If drinking a water bottle before and after school and sneaking sips at the water fountain aren't sufficient, ask your pediatrician for a note that allows your child to have a bottle in class. Still have chronic headache? Ask your doctor if your child needs pain relievers.