When a five year old or any age child keeps getting headaches, there is clearly something wrong, especially if there are other symptoms.
A brain tumor is the first thing that many parents think of when their historically healthy five year old has suddenly started complaining of recurring headaches.
“Most headaches in children are not due to brain tumors,” says Irene Tien, MD, a board-certified pediatric ER physician who can be reached at My Doctor Friend.
When Recurring Headaches in a Five Year Old Mean Trouble
“Headaches not disrupting your child’s usual activities are less concerning,” says Dr. Tien. age five
“Headaches that come on mostly in the morning, are associated with recurrent vomiting, visual changes (e.g., double vision, loss of vision), persistent for many days in a row, very unusual for your child, associated with fever or neck stiffness are more concerning for things like brain tumors, strokes, blockage of cerebrospinal fluid drainage (aka hydrocephalus), making too much cerebrospinal fluid (pseudotumor cerebri), infections of the brain (encephalitis) or meninges (meningitis, tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord).
“Rarely can a persistent headache indicate a clot in the large vein in your brain (venous sinus thrombosis) or extension of a sinus infection to the skull bone or space around the brain (Pott’s disease, epidural abscess).
“If there is a family history of migraines, then headache in children frequently are attributed to that, especially if the headache lasts more than a day, is associated with light sensitivity, vomiting or spots in the vision.”
Brain Tumor Causing Headaches in a Five Year Old or Other Age Child
Do not be frightened by aggressive publicity for childhood brain tumors.
This type of cancer definitely needs all the publicity it can get, but there is no correlation between commonality of a childhood brain tumor and the extent of publicity.
For example, DIPG (diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma) is a fatal brain tumor that almost exclusively affects young children (diagnosis is typically between age five and nine. There are many crowdfunding campaigns for this horrible illness.
But in the U.S., only about 300 kids per year are diagnosed with DIPG.
Thus, if your five year old is having ongoing headaches, it would be quite illogical to worry that DIPG is the cause, especially if there are no other symptoms.
Nevertheless, a medical evaluation is always in order for persistent or unusual headaches.
“A headache is from a brain tumor in about 1:40,000 kids,” says Dr. Tien. “The vast majority will be tension type headaches.
“Any time a child has a headache that is very different from usual, associated with neurologic symptoms (vision changes, weakness in an arm or leg, facial drooping, difficulty walking, seizure, confusion), fever with neck stiffness (especially with light sensitivity and vomiting), or recurrent vomiting, should be evaluated by a doctor.”