Cottage Q&A: What causes “ice cream headache?”

A girl holding an ice cream cone in one hand and her head in the other hand By

What causes “ice cream headache”? I find that I get it a lot.—Gail Gordy, via email

There are a number of theories, says Werner Becker, a professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Calgary and an expert with Migraine Canada. “But no one seems to really understand what’s going on with ‘ice cream headache’, that is, headache caused by a cold substance passing over the palate or the back of the throat.”

One theory—at least in the case of cold substance vs. palate—suggests that the cold stimulus activates sensory nerves in the palate, and those nerves then cause the headache either because they trigger changes in blood flow to the brain or because they directly stimulate pain nerve endings in the palate. Another theory is that the palate gets so cold, so quickly that the body tries to compensate by rapidly expanding blood vessels, which in turn sends a pain signal to the brain. This is an example of referred pain, where you physically experience changes in one part of the body as pain in another part—in this case, in the forehead or behind the eyes and nose.

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In science-speak, this “brain freeze” is called cold stimulus headache. “The severity of the headache is not so much related to temperature, but to the speed of cold onset,” says Keith Warriner, a professor in the department of food science at the University of Guelph. “One could suggest ice cream is especially associated with headaches because we consume ice cream more rapidly and in greater quantities compared to, for example, ice cubes.” 

You sound like you may be one of the poor souls especially prone to this pain. Research studies show that age is associated with getting ice cream headaches: children are more susceptible than adults. (And not just because kids love ice cream. The researchers usually used cold water or ice to trigger the headaches.) And genetics could play a role. If either your mother or father are more sensitive, you probably are too. 

“Part of the equation also seems to be that a person who develops cold stimulus headache may already be susceptible to headache, often because they get migraines,” says Becker.

Happily, ice cream headaches are usually only briefly uncomfortable. It can help to press your tongue to the roof of your mouth, says Becker. (This’ll warm up the palate a little.) Or eat slowly. Even the experts would never suggest that you do something bonkers like give up ice cream. “No one can avoid it completely,” says Becker. “It’s just too good.”

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This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue of Cottage Life.

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