Also known as ice cream headache, the sudden pain can almost make you regret that triple scoop of mint chocolate chip. Here's the science behind why it happens, plus how to ease it fast. It happens to just about everyone: you take a delicious first lick from your ice cream or long sip of a cold slushie, and then bam—your head begins to pound, or pain radiates all through your skull. The pain continues as you shut your eyes and wince, and then it subsides, letting you to go back to enjoying your cold treat again. Like sudden lightning storms and itchy mosquito bites, brain freeze is one of the downsides of summer. Also known as ice cream headache, cold stimulus headache, or by its hard-to-pronounce scientific name, sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, it's a sudden and intense kind of pain that can catch you off guard, even when you've experienced it many times before.
What exactly is brain freeze?
No, your brain doesn't actually become frozen. Brain freeze happens when a cold substance, like ice cream, is introduced behind the nose and palate, Lauren Natbony, MD, a neurologist at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, tells Health. When the bundle of nerves in this part of the mouth sense something cold, they send an instant message to the brain, causing arteries and blood vessels to react. As a result, your head starts to throb.
"The pain comes on soon after something cold has touched the palate and is typically ‘referred’ to the forehead," says Anne MacGregor, MD, a headache specialist at the Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry in the UK. The ache comes on fast, just as the cold temperature of your ice cream or drink hits those nerves. "It lasts just few seconds but sometimes minutes," before fading away, says Dr. MacGregor.
How can I get rid of it?
Brain freeze is temporary and not exactly something serious enough to take a sick day for, so it's perfectly okay to just wait it out. But if it's super intense, or you just don't want to deal with the buzzkill, there are solutions. Dr. MacGregor suggests drinking warm (but not hot) water slowly as you sense brain freeze coming on; the warm water will mitigate the cold sensation in your palate, and your head shouldn't throb as intensely or for quite as long.
Prevent brain freeze next time you eat or drink
Of course, the easiest way to keep brain freeze from striking is to avoid consuming ice-cold food and beverages, says Dr. MacGregor. But in the summer, or on a sunny warm vacation, that's not all that realistic—or fun. So prevent brain freeze from happening in the first place by eating your ice cream very slowly, especially during that initial bite or lick, so the nerves in your palate aren't overwhelmed with the cold sensation. Or try eating cold food toward the front of your mouth, which helps you avoid the sensitive nerve endings toward the back that trigger brain freeze, suggests Dr. Natbony.
Brain freezes are not dangerous and very self-limiting. It's about slowing down and being patient and aware of the likelihood of getting a brain freeze if you eat or drink too fast.