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What is an Ice Cream Headache?

An ice cream cone.
Soft serve ice cream.
Sucking on ice cubes can give people a headache.
A rapid consumption of ice cream may lead to an ice cream headache.
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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 July 2014
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Sometimes referred to as frozen brain syndrome or brain freeze, the ice cream headache is a short-term phenomenon that occurs when an individual quickly ingests an extremely cold substance such as an ice-cold drink or a large helping of ice cream. While brief, the sensation created by an ice cream headache is not generally considered to be pleasant. However, it is not uncommon for human beings to quickly forget the short bout with pain and begin to consume the cold substance at a rapid pace as soon as the headache subsides.

The cold temperature of the food or drink causes constriction of blood vessels located in the upper palate of the mouth. To compensate, the brain sends a message to the constricted blood vessels to relax. This rapid relaxation of the blood vessels causes the fluid content of the vessels to back up in the surrounding tissues. As a result, the higher fluid content creates a brief but noticeable pain in the cranium. The pain remains for anywhere from a few seconds to a minute. Depending on the individual, the pain may be severe enough to require lying down until the headache passes or be little more than an annoyance that slows down further consumption for a moment or two.

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While an ice cream headache is usually connected to the rapid consumption of ice cream, other cold foods and beverages can also create the phenomenon. Brain freeze can result from drinking an ice-cold beverage such as soda or partially frozen slush drinks. There is some evidence that yogurt that has chilled to a temperature similar to that of ice cream can also produce an ice cream headache. Even sucking on an ice cube for several minutes may produce the same effect in some people.

The easiest way to avoid an ice cream headache is to consume the food or beverage at a leisurely pace while taking smaller bites or sips of the substance. In most cases, an ice cream headache comes about due to filling the mouth to capacity with the cold substance very quickly. By consuming smaller portions and allowing more time between those spoonfuls or sips, the blood vessels are less likely to constrict rapidly and cause the brain to issue instructions to quickly relax. This will result in less incidence of fluid collecting in the surrounding tissue and causing these short-term headaches.

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