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What causes “ice cream headache”?

Dear Cecil:

When eating ice cream and sno-cones too fast I often get a "cold headache." What causes this? What would happen if you kept chowing down on those frozen treats?

Chuck Nevitt, Dallas

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

The standard medical term for this phenomenon is “ice cream headache” — an expression so clear and comprehensible it obviously was settled on by mistake. Probably that accounts for the scarcity of research on this universal (well, pretty darn common) human condition. One recalls the attention given some years back to a complaint someone had been shrewd enough to name “hypoglycemia.” Can you see getting big money to study Folks Feeling Vaguely Punk?

Ice cream headache occurs most frequently after you’ve worked up a sweat or during very hot weather. Typically it starts when you cram too much cold stuff into the roof of your mouth. It reaches a peak in 25 to 30 seconds that can last from several seconds to a couple minutes. Most people feel it deep in the front of the head, although if the ice cream gets stuck in the vicinity of the tonsils you may feel the pain behind your ears. Cold farther down the throat produces no headache.

The cause of ice cream headache is far from clear. One plausible explanation is that the cold causes constriction of blood vessels near the point of contact, which in turn causes the blood to back up painfully inside the head.

Ice cream headache occurs in maybe a third of the general population but in over 90 percent of migraine sufferers, who feel it in the same place they get migraines. (Many migraine victims take precautions with frozen desserts for just that reason.) Researchers believe migraine and ice cream headache are physiologically similar, the difference being that migraine sufferers are abnormally sensitive to stimuli the rest of us ignore. As for what would happen if you applied the cold continuously, I imagine a migraine sufferer could give you a pretty graphic description. I don’t expect it’d be fun.

Cecil Adams

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