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Could My 7-Year Old Be Having Migranes?

Q. My 7-year-old has been having headaches. Our doctor says they're migraines. Isn't he too young?

A. Actually, no. About 10 percent of children suffer from migraines. These headaches come and go, are throbbing, and usually last a few hours (although they can last up to three days!). When a child has one, he may look pale and sick (he might throw up), and light, noise, and motion may make him feel worse. Often, children need to go to sleep to feel better, and they may feel weak when they wake up. We don't entirely understand what causes migraines, but it's important that every child who gets headaches has a thorough examination by his doctor. This is especially crucial if the pain is getting more severe, wakes your child from sleep, is present when he wakes up in the morning, or interferes with his walking or talking. Headaches can be caused by lots of things, including allergies, sinus infections, stress, eye strain—and, though incredibly rare, scary things like brain tumors. That's why whenever a patient comes in with a complaint of headache, I spend a really long time with him. I'll occasionally order blood tests to rule out other problems, and may do a CT scan or MRI if the symptoms are particularly severe or unusual. For most children, though, taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen at the first sign of migraine, along with a nice nap in a darkened room, will take care of the ache.

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.