What Parents Need to Know About Migraines

Parents working remotely during the pandemic are experiencing migraines making it hard to care for their kids. Experts explain migraine triggers, symptoms, treatment, and why headaches of any kind shouldn't be ignored.

Stressed mother with little girl in kitchen
Photo: RUNSTUDIO/Getty Images

Add another issue exacerbated by COVID-19 to the list: migraines.

Already the third most prevalent illness globally, affecting 39 million people in the U.S. and 1 billion worldwide, migraines can worsen with excessive screen time. Remote work and distance learning have increased the amount of time we're spending in front of screens. New research shows that, as a result, parents are struggling with migraines that are reducing their quality of life.

In a recent Axon Optics study of nearly 500 U.S. workers working remotely during the pandemic, 53 percent of parents said they could not care for their kids the way they want because of migraines. More than 40 percent of people with migraines say the headaches are separating them from their kids more than technology does.

Screen time isn't the only issue. ″One of the most common triggers for migraines is stress, and I think we are all stressed," says Bradley Katz, M.D., Ph.D., a neuro-ophthalmologist at the University of Utah and founder of Axon Optics. ″We're not sleeping properly, which is another trigger."

Researchers still haven't pinpointed the exact cause of migraines and why some people get them and others don't, but they can be debilitating. They can also be misunderstood and dismissed by friends, family, and co-workers. ″If you haven't had a migraine, you don't know how disabling they are, not just because of the severity but because of the associated symptoms," says Dr. Katz.

It's clear: migraines are a big issue and shouldn't be ignored. Experts share other common triggers, symptoms in both adults and kids, and treatment options.

What Triggers Migraines?

Besides screen time, stress, and lack of sleep, what we consume can also bring on migraine headaches. One big trigger is red wine. And excessive alcohol use is up during the pandemic. Nitrates, like those found in bacon and pepperoni, and certain smells like perfumes can also trigger migraines.

″For a lot of people, it's a matter of sitting down and identifying the triggers, what you've done in the last several hours, and avoiding those triggers and mitigating them,″ says Dr. Katz.

Migraine Symptoms in Adults

The most common and well-known symptom is a headache, although it's different than a tension headache. ″Migraines are often one-sided, which is kind of weird, and they have a throbbing characteristic to them, like a pulsation similar to a heartbeat almost,″ says Dr. Katz.

Though nausea and vomiting are commonly recognized, they're actually rarer than some other, lesser-known symptoms.

People with migraines often report having an abnormal sensitivity to light, or photophobia. But what not everyone realizes until they have a migraine is that spending time outside is less of a problem than running errands or going to the office. ″Outside, people put sunglasses on,″ says Dr. Katz. ″What they find really annoying is non-incandescent, artificial indoor light, fluorescent light, LED light.″

Phonophobia, or a sensitivity to sound, is also typical in those experiencing a migraine. ″When they are having an attack, they find sounds are extra loud or annoying,″ says Dr. Katz.

Migraine Symptoms in Kids

Kids can have the same symptoms as adults, but migraines may present differently in the younger generation. For example, people who have migraines as adults often have a history of being car sick as children. Along with motion sickness, they can also experience episodic belly pain. ″Some kids will have this unexplainable, gassy, crampy stomachache that comes and goes. As a result, that person may develop migraine headaches,″ says Dr. Katz.

Migraines also run in families. ″That being said, any person can suffer from migraines whether they have a family history of them or not,″ says Thomas Pitts, M.D., a board-certified neurologist at Hudson Medical Wellness in New York City.

Parents with migraines don't necessarily need to stress that their kids will exhibit symptoms, adds Dr. Pitts. But it's important that parents be responsive to their needs and take symptoms seriously if they complain of any.

″Listening to our children and seeking an evaluation with their physician when they complain of headache, nausea, light and sound sensitivity, changes in smell, taste, vision, or smell, as well as thinking problems is key for parents to address these issues early on in their course,″ says Dr. Pitts.

Treatment for Migraines

If you think you've identified a trigger for your migraine, report it to your physician so you can talk it through. A doctor can confirm whether it's the likely source of your migraine and walk you through ways to avoid it if possible.

″Sometimes triggers are clear cut and can easily be avoided, like specific perfumes,″ says Dr. Pitts. ″Other times, the tests may show that the patient is allergic to a specific ingredient or compound possibly found in multiple food and drinks.″ One of those, says Dr. Pitts, is tyrosine found in things like aged wines and cheeses. ″Taking test results or information obtained from a headache journal to your physician for review and further guidance is key,″ adds Dr. Pitts.

In the meantime, if you're struggling with a migraine, finding a cool, dark, and quiet place can help alleviate your symptoms. Adults can take over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen or a combination drug, such as acetaminophen/caffeine/aspirin.

″Caffeine can help with a migraine,″ says Dr. Katz. ″It's really not known why. It's just one of those things people discovered by accident.″ But don't go overboard: Dr. Katz cautions too much caffeine can also be a trigger.

It's also important to monitor pill intake. ″If you're getting frequent headaches and are taking [medicine] almost every other day, you can get rebound headaches because your body needs more and more to get rid of the headache,″ cautions Dr. Katz. ″That's really when people need to talk to their doctor. Somebody who is having headaches more than 10 to 12 times per month should be on a preventative medication.″

Why You Shouldn't Ignore Headaches

If left unchecked, says Dr. Pitts, migraines can increase your risk of stroke. But they are a type of primary headache disorder, so, unlike other types of headaches, they are not typically indicative of a more serious condition. Headaches that are thought to be a sign of an underlying medical condition, like a brain tumor or aneurysm, are known as secondary headaches. It's best to talk to a doctor rather than self-diagnose.

″Headaches in general can certainly indicate a wider medical issue and should be evaluated by a qualified expert in the field, such as a neurologist,″ says Dr. Pitts. ″Concerning signs and symptoms include headache in the setting of weakness of the face, arm, and/or leg, problems with language, speech, vision, sensation, and coordination."

If your headache changes, such as increased intensity, frequency, or a different type of pain, you should also call a doctor. And kids shouldn't take aspirin without checking with their doctor first—it can cause Reye Syndrome, which is potentially fatal—but can try acetaminophen. Children, like adults, should avoid taking medications every day.

″If you're finding that the over-the-counter medications aren't effective or you have to use them more than 10 times per month, you should check in with the pediatrician," adds Dr. Katz.

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