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Nausea, vomiting, headaches...is it a stomach bug or something more?

Recognize migraines in your child

Migraine episodes in children can often be dismissed as a stomach bug or a virus. When children experience the very common symptoms of nausea, vomiting and a headache, parents and doctors don't
usually suspect migraines as the culprit of their sickness.

The onset of symptoms can be as quick and as debilitating as the flu. There are innumerable childhood illnesses beginning with vomiting and headaches so it can be hard to differentiate exactly what sickness a child is experiencing.

Over 37 million Americans live with migraine headaches. Is your child one of them?

Searching for a diagnosis
Jessica Paterson from Hyde Park became frustrated when she couldn't help her sick child. Her daughter Kailey became suddenly ill at 9 years old. "Kailey presented with severe head pain, stomach pain and vomiting accompanied with nausea, often throwing up 50 plus times a day," she says. "At first she had an upper-respiratory infection, which led to the headache and vomiting and we figured she picked up a stomach bug. But after 3 days with no relief we met with our pediatrician who gave her an anti-nausea medication."

Meg VanLeuven of Stanfordville says that her daughter Grace had unusual symptoms right after having the flu shot. "She got up for school and was as happy as could be. An hour later I picked her up after learning she had a high fever. I brought her home and she kept telling me she couldn't see and her eyes hurt really badly. Every time she tried to open them they were "hot and burning" and she instantly needed to close them."

READ MORE: Is your child suffering from migraine headaches?

After a visit to her doctor, Grace was diagnosed with the flu. She spent two days in her room complaining of head pain and feeling nauseous. When she felt better, Grace was able to explain to her mother that she needed the room to be really cool and dark. That's when VanLeuven thought about the possibility of a migraine.

"She was 7 years old when she had her first migraine. She started to have them almost weekly sometimes every 10 days. We always tried natural relievers until we were referred to a pediatric neurologist in Albany," she says.

Avoiding triggers
Even after the diagnosis of a migraine, children can continue to suffer. What triggers a migraine episode for each person is totally unique. Certain foods, lack of sleep or dehydration are triggers for some kids. Too much exercise or change of seasons can trigger others.

Parents can find themselves playing detective trying to track down exactly what tips off their child's painful symptoms.

VanLeuven says the doctor told her to keep a diary of her daughter's symptoms and potential triggers.  "After keeping the diary we learned that stress and lack of sleep were major triggers for her as well as sugar intake. During the summer when she is in summer camp or any kind of sports that cause natural dehydration she suffers the most."

READ MORE: Important headache triggers parents must know

Finding the right treatment
For some parents one trip to the doctor doesn't give them the answers they need. Seeking out a specialist can send parents on a lengthy journey to discover the root cause of their child's migraine episodes.

Paterson says, "The process was and still is grueling; I never imagined you would have to advocate and fight so much to help your child get better. We have met with over 10 neurologists between outpatient and inpatient treatment stemming from Albany to Philadelphia. We have seen neurologists, headache specialists, rheumatologists, cardiologists, an ENT, allergists, immunologists and gastroenterologists (for abdominal migraines and Gastro paresis)," she says.

There are over one hundred medications designed to treat migraine headaches, both prescription and over the counter. As a person who suffers from migraines, I know that finding just the right one can be a tedious and painful process. The side effects caused by the medications themselves can cause rebound
headaches, or mimic the exact symptoms a child is already suffering from.

Stop migraines before they start
Treatment for each child varies. Use preventative care to stay ahead of migraine pain. Stay hydrated, avoid certain foods or take a routine medication.

If your child is experiencing a sudden migraine drinking coffee or small amounts of caffeine helps stop a migraine or minimize its effects. A cold compress to the back of the neck and a cool, dark room to minimize sound and light also helps.

Allowing your child time to recover and doing your best to comfort them is the best way to help them through a painful migraine episode.  

It may be easier for some families to identify migraines right away, especially if there is a family history, or in cases where the child is old enough to share their symptoms. But for others it can take time for doctors to fully recognize a child's experience with migraines. Children as young as 18 months can experience migraine episodes, but are unable to verbally express their symptoms. Unfortunately, there is no cure for migraines. It is a genetic neurological disease that will require lifelong treatment.

Roxanne Ferber is a twin mom and freelance writer living in Saugerties. She writes about her parenting adventures as a blogger for HV Parent.