During a morning visit over coffee with a friend, her 11-year-old kept emerging from his room to pop Tylenol. Seems he had a headache; turns out he has them all the time. Mother and son were unfazed. I was fazed aplenty.
Of course, I'm not the world's most rational mom. When my kids say "headache," I think "brain tumor." So I boned up on the whole question of kids and headaches. Here's what I learned:
* Ten percent of kids get at least one headache a month, mostly for the same reasons grownups get them.
* Such as (in no particular order): irregular sleep, skipping meals, eating chocolate and processed meats, strep and sinus infections, colds, eyestrain and, sadly, tension. Some kids even get "analgesic rebound" headaches -- from taking too much headache medication.
* Most kids' headaches -- 78 out of 104, in one study -- are migraines.
* Kids' brain tumors are (release breath here) pretty rare: 2,200 a year in U.S. kids under age 20.
* Even scary symptoms accompanying a headache -- numbness, dizziness, seeing sparkling lights -- rarely mean "brain tumor." More likely they mean "migraine with aura."
* Still, you need to pay attention. Call the pediatrician if your headachy kid seems generally sick or feels dizzy; if you notice changes in his alertness or balance; if the headaches get worse or more frequent; or if they wake him at night or come first thing in the morning.
* To treat, start with low-impact lifestyle remedies, particularly fixing sleep and eating habits. If the headaches continue, try acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). But never aspirin, which can trigger Reye's syndrome, a potentially fatal neurological illness.
* But -- I knew I was fazed for a reason -- unless you carefully follow recommended dose and frequency advice, these other drugs can be as risky as aspirin and worse. Doctors have long known that even small overdoses of these drugs can cause liver or kidney damage, a risk greatly compounded by giving them to kids at adult or otherwise excessive doses. But if used as directed on the label, in age-specified doses, they should be safe for occasional use.
* Note to friend: 11-year-olds shouldn't administer their own drugs, even Tylenol.
-- Jennifer Huget