Parents have asked me some painful questions about what to do when their child gets a headache after eating ice cream. I don’t want everyone screaming for anything but ice cream, so let me provide some information on this topic.
Ice cream headaches, AKA “brain freeze”
Ice cream headaches, otherwise known as “brain freeze,” occur when something cold, such as ice cream, touches the roof of your mouth. The exact mechanism that causes these headaches is not clear. One thought is that the cold sensation triggers nerves in the brain that control the size of blood vessels in the head. Then the rapid swelling or dilation of blood vessels, which allows more warm blood from the heart to flow up to the brain, causes your forehead or your child’s forehead to hurt. It’s a mechanism some believe may be similar to migraine headaches. And interestingly enough, those prone to migraines have more ice cream headaches.
Ice cream headaches only last a minute or two, never more than five (while migraine headaches can last much longer). They go away on their own. They are never dangerous, but can be uncomfortable.
So what can you do about an ice cream headache?
One easy thing is to tell your child to eat their ice cream more slowly or reduce how much they eat. You can also suggest they warm up cold foods like ice cream up in the front of their mouth before chewing or swallowing.
Another solution is to drink something that is warmer than the cold substance that caused the headache. Some children and adults tell me they simply put their thumb in their mouth, since the thumb’s heat and the added pressure of sucking on that thumb will decrease the pain. You might also cover your mouth with your hands and breathe quickly to trap warm breath and increase the temperature inside your mouth.
If the headache lasts longer than a few minutes, is associated with fever, vomiting, and is not linked to eating or drinking something cold, then speak to your child’s doctor. It’s possible that these are not simple ice cream headaches.
Hopefully tips like this will melt away any concerns you have the next time your child gets a headache while eating ice cream.
Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and MyNBC 5, or visit the “First with Kids” video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.