An ice cream headache hits hard and fast, leaving you reeling with blinding pain. Here’s the science behind the sudden jolt and what can be done about it.
Credit: Photographer Victor Protasio, Prop Stylist Mindi Shapiro, Food Stylist Anna Hampton

You’re guzzling down a chocolate milkshake, enjoying the ultra-rich and creamy treat when suddenly it strikes: an intense, almost debilitating surge of pain in your forehead and behind your eyes.

You’re experiencing sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, or brain freeze. It’s all too common among ice cream, snow cone, and milkshake fans. But is it dangerous? Can you prevent it? Read on to learn more.

What is brain freeze?

Your mouth is filled with many tiny blood vessels and capillaries. That’s why it’s such a good place to check for a fever.

Those capillaries are sensitive to swings in temperature from outside air, food, and drink. (That’s also why you shouldn’t take your temperature soon after drinking something cold or hot.)

Watch: Foods You Should Never Freeze

Likewise, your mouth is also home to several vital nerve bundles. They interact with nerves throughout your face and head, and if they’re irritated, they can cause a headache, or pain and throbbing in your head.

Brain freeze, a type of cold-stimulus headache, is the result of a sudden change in temperature near those blood vessels and sensitive nerves. The rapid cooling leads the blood vessels in the upper palate (or the roof of your mouth) to constrict suddenly. The cold food or drink can also activate those sensitive nerves in your mouth.

One the nerves are calm and the blood vessels have returned to their normal width, the headache will dissipate. It will happen on its own—most ice cream headaches are short-lived—but there are things you can do to speed it up.

How to treat brain freeze

If you’re eager to end the crush of pain in your forehead after your big gulp of cherry slush, take these steps:

  • Drink warm water. You can dilate the blood vessels in the roof of your mouth back to normal with warm water. Just don’t get the water too hot. It may make the pain worse.
  • Warm the roof of the mouth with your tongue. Roll your tongue to the top of your mouth. The heat will slowly dilate the blood vessels, helping to ease the discomfort.
  • Blow warm air into your mouth. Place your hands over your nose and mouth. Blow air from your diaphragm to warm up your mouth and palate.

How to prevent brain freeze

You can avoid an ice cream headache altogether with these tips:

  • Slow down. You may have an insatiable urge to guzzle something ice cold on a hot day, but if you’re not eager to deal with the pounding, blinding pain of an albeit brief brain freeze, take it easy.
  • Keep cold food in the front of your mouth: The nerve bundles that are primarily responsible for brain freeze, sphenopalatine ganglion (SPG), are located behind the nose and palate. If you can keep cold foods forward in your mouth until they have a chance to warm slightly, that could reduce the risk of brain freeze.
  • Let cold foods warm up: If you don’t mind waiting for that butter pecan to melt a bit, you can reduce your risk for brain freeze by eating ice cream that is slightly less frosty.

Is brain freeze dangerous?

No. Despite the lightning-intense surge of pain and throbbing, brain freeze is not dangerous.

SPG is the same nerve bundle that’s responsible for migraine headaches and cluster headaches. People who have a history of these types of headaches may be more likely to experience brain freeze. However, unlike those headaches, brain freeze is not a sign of a more serious neurological condition.

If you slow down and enjoy those frosty treats a bit longer, you won’t have to worry about that ice-cold smoothie leaving you with a headache.