Ask A Scientist

Why do we get “brain freeze”?

Asked by: Harrison Katz
School: Maine Endwell Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Kevin Wagstaff
Hobbies/Interests: Gymnastics
Career Interest: Teacher

Answer from Janet Ambrogne

Assistant professor, Decker School of Nursing, Bin

Ph.D. School: Medical College of Georgia, Augusta, GA

Research Area: Women's health, addictions.

Family: Partner, Sean, and daughter, Angela, 2.

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You’ve been craving an ice cream all day and finally you have one. You eagerly take a big bite and close your eyes, ready to savor that cool, sweet taste. Within seconds you feel a sudden, strong pain in the middle of your head. You forget about ice cream because now you have what feels like a really bad headache. Luckily, the pain goes away in less than a minute. You very carefully take a second mouthful of ice cream, thinking to yourself, “what was that?” You just experienced what is commonly called “brain freeze.” Other names are “ice cream headache,” and “cold induced headache.” This can occur when you quickly eat or drink something cold. However, your brain does not actually freeze. In the roof of your mouth there are lots of very sensitive nerves that protect your brain. When these nerves feel something cold like ice cream or a frozen drink, they think the brain is too cold and automatically send messages to the brain telling it to “warm up.” In order to get warm, blood vessels in the brain dilate, or swell. This causes the painful sensation that lasts about 30 to 50 seconds. About a third of the population experiences this type of pain at one time or another. People who get migraine and tension headaches may be more likely to feel pain after eating or drinking something cold. There are some things you can do to prevent the pain. As yummy as that ice cream or Slurpee may be, take your time between bites and sips. If you do feel pain, warm up your mouth by sipping something warm or touching the roof of your mouth with your tongue.

Last Updated: 9/18/13