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General Medical Questions
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Question : What exactly happens when I eat something cold and get an ice-cream headache? Is it harmful in any way?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Howard LeWine, M.D., is chief editor of Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. LeWine has been a primary care internist and teacher of internal medicine since 1978.

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March 17, 2014
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Ice-cream headache is a headache some people get when they consume a cold food or beverage quickly. It’s also known as “brain freeze” or cold-stimulus headache. The pain usually hits the forehead or both temples. It typically lasts less than five minutes.

The cause is debated. The leading theory suggests it starts when a cold substance touches the roof of the mouth or the back of the throat. This causes small blood vessels in those areas to first tighten and then rapidly open back up.

Pain receptors near the blood vessels sense the discomfort. They send a message along tiny nerve fibers to the trigeminal nerve in the head. The message then moves on to the brain. The brain reads the cold-stimulus sensations as coming from the head rather than the mouth. This type of pain is called referred pain.

Cold-stimulus pain is common. It happens in 30% to 40% of people who don’t usually have headaches. The symptoms are harmless and not a sign of any underlying disease. It seems to be more common in migraine sufferers.

Because ice-cream headaches are so short-lived, they’re hard to study. There’s no proven way to stop them. Most people have their own ways to treat them. The most common is to curl the tongue and press the underside against the roof of the mouth.

The best way to prevent the headache is to eat very cold foods slowly.

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