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What Causes Brain Freeze—And How To Cure It Fast

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What Causes Brain Freeze—And How To Cure It Fast

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As we’re officially in the thick of summer, you might be trying to cool off by chugging ice water, dipping into fro-yo, or sipping on a fruity slushy. But sometimes, the brain freeze that ensues can cause more pain (in the form of a sudden, sharp headache) than gain (via sweet relief from the intensity of the blistering heat). That said, is there a way to stop brain freeze before it has the chance to settle in, or a hack that actually works to mitigate pain as soon as it hits? Also, what causes brain freeze to begin with?

In search of intel and quick tips, we reached out to Ashley Agan, MD, an otolaryngologist (aka ear, nose, and throat doctor, or ENT) with UT Southwestern Medical Center.

What causes brain freeze?

“Brain freeze, also known as ice cream headache or cold stimulus headache, is a quick, short-lasting pain over the front or sides of the head that is brought on by ingestion of cold foods or drinks,” Dr. Agan begins. Its cause has yet to be fully understood, but she mentions that it’s potentially triggered by the sudden tightening and expansion of blood vessels.

“Brain freeze, also known as ice cream headache or cold stimulus headache, is a quick, short-lasting pain over the front or sides of the head that is brought on by ingestion of cold foods or drinks.”

“One hypothesis is that the sudden exposure to cold triggers rapid vasoconstriction—or narrowing of blood vessels—followed by vasodilation, or widening of blood vessels,” Dr. Agan explains, activating pain receptors within the blood vessel walls in the process. “This pain signal passes through the sensory nerve of the head and face, which translates to the painful experience that we recognize as brain freeze.”

Fortunately, brain freeze is more uncomfortable than it is dangerous. “In general, it is a very quick pain that dissipates in minutes,” Dr. Agan says. She notes that it’s very common and tends to happen more frequently in children… though some of us who can’t help but rapidly down a hefty serving of ice cream with the enthusiasm of a child could be more likely to experience brain freeze often, as well.

In addition, Dr. Agan mentions that people who suffer from migraine headaches may be more susceptible to brain freeze. (Strangely enough, it turns out that those who have chronic migraines may find relief by dunking their heads in cold water rather than sipping on it.)

How to stop brain freeze in its tracks

There are a few things you can do to limit the severity of brain freeze and stop it quickly once it hits—and lucky for us, none of them involves passing up frozen treats for good. According to a 2019 review in Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, the severity, frequency, and latency of brain freeze is largely influenced by the size of the exposed area and the speed at which you consume a triggering food or drink.

For instance, downing a large bottle of ice-cold water is more likely to lead to intense brain freeze compared to crunching on a small ice cube. With that in mind, Dr. Agan recommends enjoying cold foods and bevs slowly—or at least as slowly as you can before they melt—and perhaps swapping ice water for H2O at room temperature.

Another hack that can do the trick and only takes a bit of patience to employ? “Hold the substance in the front of your mouth for a few seconds to warm it up before swallowing it,” Dr. Agan says. Remember: Less icy temps means a lower likelihood of experiencing pain, and thus a greater likelihood of fully enjoying your fave cold treats through summer and beyond.

If you find that brain freeze still creeps up on you, Dr. Agan leaves us with a parting tip to mitigate the pain almost instantly. “Remove the cold trigger and warm up the roof of the mouth by pressing your tongue or thumb to the roof of your mouth,” she advises, to reset to baseline.

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