How to know if your teen's headache is something more serious

How to know if your teen's headache is just a headache or something more serious. (Photo: Getty Creative)
How to know if your teen's headache is just a headache or something more serious. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Headaches are a normal part of life, so it’s hardly shocking when a teenager has one. Still, it can raise some internal alarms, especially if your teen’s headache seems worse than usual.

While it’s easy to dismiss your teen’s headache as one of those things, it’s also easy to freak out and assume it’s due to something serious, like meningitis. Here’s what could be behind your child’s headache, and how to know when it’s a sign of something more.

What usually causes headaches in teenagers?

“It can be pretty varied,” Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Translational Neurosciences and Neurotherapeutics at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Teenagers can develop headaches from something as simple as not drinking enough water or having too much caffeine, he notes.

They can also develop migraines, which tend to run in families, according to Amit Sachdev, MD, associate medical director for the department of neurology and ophthalmology at Michigan State University. Meaning, if you or your partner experiences migraines and your teen suddenly starts having similar symptoms, the odds are pretty good they now suffer from migraines too.

Another common cause of head pain in teens is tension headaches. “Tension headaches can be provoked by sinus disease, neck pain and stress,” Sachdev says.

And, while more rare, teenagers can also develop a headache due to something more serious like a tumor or meningitis, Kesari says. “But in general, a large portion of the U.S. has headaches that are benign.”

What are signs of meningitis?

A quick primer on meningitis: It’s a term used to describe inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord, per the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Hallmark symptoms of meningitis generally include a headache, stiff neck and sensitivity to light, Sachdev says.

Someone with meningitis also might have the following signs, according to the NINDS:

· Sudden fever

· Nausea or vomiting

· Double vision

· Drowsiness

Meningitis usually starts with flu-like symptoms that develop over one to two days and progresses from there, the NINDS notes.

How can you know if your teen’s headache should get checked out?

Sachdev recommends using the acronym SNOOP, which doctors rely on to help identify dangerous headaches:

Systematic symptoms: Fever and weight loss.

Neurologic symptoms: Abnormal signs like confusion, being less alert than usual, having vision that’s off, slurring their speech or they’re losing consciousness.

Onset: Sudden, abrupt or split-second.

Older: A headache that just comes on and is getting worse (especially in middle aged patients).

Previous headache history: Is this the first time this has happened or is it different than other past headaches? Is it happening more often lately and it is it getting more severe?

If your child meets the above criteria, call your doctor or go to the ER, says Sachdev. And, if you’re unsure, it’s still a good idea to call your doctor, just to be safe.