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Ice Cream Headaches

I scream, you scream, we all scream for . . . ow! That cone of vanilla fudge swirl has done it again: The sweet treat has quickly given you a bad headache. But don't blame the ice cream — it's not acting alone. The roof of your mouth, your nerves, and your blood vessels (blood vessels are tiny tubes that carry blood through your body) are to blame, too!

Here's the scoop on what happens. When you eat or drink, food or liquid touches your palate (say: PAL-it) before you swallow. Your palate is also known as the roof of your mouth. You can feel your palate with your tongue.

When something very cold touches the center of the palate, the cold temperature can set off certain nerves that control how much blood flows to your head. The nerves respond by causing the blood vessels in the head to swell up. This quick swelling of the blood vessels is what causes your head to pound and hurt. Some people call this a "brain freeze," even though nothing is really happening in the brain — it's all in the blood vessels of the head.

And ice cream isn't the only food that can make your head hurt. Anything that's very cold — like ice pops, slushy frozen drinks, and even cold soda, water, milk, or juice — can make the blood vessels swell.

A headache from ice cream or another cold food usually lasts about a minute or so, although it can feel like much longer. This kind of headache almost never lasts more than 5 minutes, and it goes away on its own. And although you may feel pain, it's not dangerous and doesn't mean that anything is wrong in your body.

Want to lick your ice cream headaches? Some doctors say that simply eating cold foods more slowly can help prevent brain freeze. You can also try warming foods up a tiny bit in the front of your mouth before swallowing them. And if you start to feel an ice cream headache coming on, take a break from the cold food for a minute or two. That way your palate will warm up a little so you can enjoy the rest of your chilly dessert.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: May 2013