What Is Brain Freeze?

Brain freeze (sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia) is an excruciating head pain when eating something cold. It is also called “ice cream headache” because it correlates with extremely cold foods, like frozen treats. Medically speaking, brain freeze is classified as a cold-stimulus headache.

Brain freeze affects the vascular and nervous systems. Healthcare providers believe that when something extremely cold hits the roof of your mouth, it drops the temperature dramatically, causing the blood vessels to constrict. They then reopen quickly, triggering a pain signal in the brain.

This article explains brain freeze symptoms, causes, diagnosis, prevention, and how to cope.

Two kids eating ice cream, one holds their head

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Brain Freeze Symptoms

Brain freeze occurs when you eat something cold. Therefore, you may notice symptoms while eating ice cream, a slushy, a popsicle, or an iced drink. Symptoms include:

  • Pain in the forehead or temples
  • Intense pain
  • Occurs immediately after something cold hits the palate (roof of the mouth)
  • Resolves within 10 minutes

Interestingly, brain freeze can also occur if you are exposed to very low environmental temperatures. For example, when you inhale cold air or dive into cold water, you may also experience a cold-stimulus headache.

Causes

While brain freeze seems like a universal experience, not everyone experiences this type of headache. A study of 618 people found that 51% of participants experienced brain freeze.

Frigid temperatures in the mouth or environment cause brain freeze. Examples of how brain freeze may occur include:

  • Consuming frozen treats, like ice cream and popsicles
  • Drinking cold beverages, like ice water or a slushy
  • Being in freezing air temperature
  • Immersing your head in very cold water

In addition, people who experience migraines seem to be more predisposed to brain freeze. An older study on adolescents found that 55.2% of those with a history of migraines experienced brain freeze compared to 39.6% of those without a history of migraines.

Diagnosis

You won’t require a formal diagnosis for brain freeze most of the time. That’s because the cause and effect are often so obvious and the symptoms short-lived.

However, the International Headache Society (IHS) has diagnostic criteria for cold-stimulus headaches. They include:

  • Headache occurs only with cold stimulus to the head or palate
  • Headache resolves within 10-30 minutes after you remove the cold stimulus
  • Not explained by another headache diagnosis

After eating something very cold, sudden, intense headache pain is often a brain freeze.

If you experience a sudden, severe headache after eating something cold and it does not go away quickly, you should contact your healthcare provider. Likewise, if a sudden, severe headache is not accompanied by cold air, water, or food, contact a healthcare provider since this can sometimes indicate a medical emergency.

Treatment

The best thing to do is stop eating the offending food that is causing the brain freeze. Thankfully, brain freeze is short-lived, so often, once you remove the culprit, it goes away on its own. In addition, try the following:

  • Press your thumb on the roof of your mouth to warm it up
  • Drink something warm
  • Resume eating slowly
  • Warm cold food in your mouth before swallowing

You may be tempted to pop an Advil (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen). However, remember that doing so is often futile since the brain freeze will likely be over before the pain reliever kicks in.

When to Contact a Healthcare Provider

A brain freeze is usually easy to spot because of its direct correlation to eating cold foods. However, you shouldn’t blow off every sudden, intense headache, as these are sometimes warning signs of a medical emergency, like stroke, brain infection, or tumor.

Warning signs that warrant medical attention include:

  • Fever
  • History of tumors
  • Unconsciousness
  • Headache comes on suddenly
  • Age over 65
  • New headache or change in headache pattern
  • Headache that is affected by a change in position
  • Headache that is brought on by sneezing, coughing, or exercise
  • Headache accompanied by vision changes
  • Headaches during pregnancy or postpartum
  • Trauma-induced headache
  • Immune system disorders, like HIV
  • Headache associated with pain killer overuse

Summary

Brain freeze is a sudden headache in your forehead and temples after eating something cold, like ice cream. Known medically as cold-stimulus headache, it happens because extreme temperature change on your palate causes your blood vessels to constrict and reopen rapidly. This vascular change sends a pain signal to the brain, resulting in a headache.

Brain freeze is short-lived, often resolving within 10 minutes after you stop eating. You can usually prevent or reduce symptoms by eating slowly, warming food in your mouth before swallowing, and drinking something warm.

A Word From Verywell

If you experience sudden severe pain in your forehead while eating something cold, chances are you have a brain freeze. Fortunately, brain freeze is short-lived, often resolving when you stop eating. Therefore, no treatment is usually necessary.

However, keep in mind that not all sudden, severe headaches are benign. Sometimes they can indicate something serious like a stroke or a tumor. If your headache is not associated with something cold or it doesn't resolve on its own quickly, contact a healthcare provider.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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