Melting Away the Ice Cream Headache: First With Kids - Vermont Children's Hospital, Fletcher Allen

Parents have asking me some painful questions about what to do when their child gets a headache after eating ice cream. Well, I don’t want anyone screaming for anything but ice cream, so let me provide some information on this topic.  

Ice cream headaches occur when something cold like ice cream touches the roof of your child’s or your own mouth. While the exact mechanism that causes these headaches is not clear, it is thought that the cold triggers nerves in the brain that control the size of blood vessels in the head. Those blood vessels constrict when they initially sense the cold temperature, and then expand in caliber to increase blood flow to the head. This expansion of blood vessels may be what causes your child’s forehead to hurt. It’s a mechanism that may be similar to what causes migraine headaches, and those prone to migraine have more ice cream headaches.

While this type of headache is also called a “brain freeze,” the pain is not due to any problem with the brain, but with the blood vessels in the head. Ice cream is not the only substance that can do this: Anything cold can cause headaches, from ice pops to cold soda, water, milk, or juice.  

Ice cream headaches only last a minute or two, never more than five, and they go away on their own. They are never dangerous, but can be uncomfortable.

So what can you do? One easy thing is to tell your child to slow down when they eat their ice cream. You can also reduce how much ice cream they put on each spoonful they put into their mouths. Or you can suggest that they try to naturally warm foods up first in the front of their mouth before they move it toward the back upper roof of the mouth. Another solution is to drink something that is warm in between bites or spoonfuls of the cold substance that causes the headache.

If the headache lasts longer than a few minutes, is not linked to eating or drinking something cold, or is associated with fever or vomiting, then speak to your child’s doctor since it is not likely to be a simple ice cream headache.  

Hopefully tips like these will melt away any concerns you have the next time your child gets an ice cream headache.  

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids.