What is a migraine? Why migraine happens. Who gets migraines? Treating migraines.

Ice Cream You Scream

While doctors have known about the common condition known as the ice cream headache for a long time—at least since the mid 1800's—they still don't agree on what causes the phenomenon. If you've ever sucked on an ice cube or swallowed something very cold, you know that extreme cold can cause pain in the mouth and throat. In some people, exposure to cold foods also causes headache. So common is this phenomenon that 30-40% of those people who otherwise don't get headaches, say they experience ice cream headaches.

On the other hand, in those who suffer severe migraines, ice cream headaches are much more common. One study showed that 85% of all migraine sufferers experience such headaches.

Migraine Trigger

In ice cream headaches, the pain develops as the frozen delicacy is eaten. Onset is rapid and severe and the pain is located in either the center of the forehead or in both temples. The headache tends to dissipate within 5 minutes. Migraine sufferers may experience one-sided ice cream headaches and in rare cases, these symptoms may trigger an all out migraine attack.

Doctors group this type of headache with similar short-lived conditions that they term cold-stimulus headaches. Two major health-related organizations, the World Health Organization, and the International Headache Society, think of these headaches as benign in nature and find that they do not pose any major risk to health. The condition can be avoided by not rushing the ingestion of cold treats.

Diving into cold water with an exposed head may also cause headache, and the cause is probably due to too much stimulation of the nerve endings in the skin of the face and head. It is believed that repeated exposure to sub-zero waters can decrease the skin's sensitivity to cold, reducing the chance of headaches. No similar studies have been performed on the topic of ice cream headaches.

The mechanism for ice cream headaches is not well understood. There is local stimulation of the mouth and throat where there exists a large supply of nerves and blood vessels. If we apply cold ice cream to the mucous membranes of these areas, there is local discomfort. It's a bit of a leap to say that local stimulus can cause a headache.  Nonetheless, the fact that migraine sufferers are more prone to this condition suggests that stimulating the throat has ramifications for the central nervous system, where nerves may make contact with the central trigeminal pathways responsible for causing headaches.


While the mechanism for ice cream headaches may not yet be well-understood, there should be no dearth of volunteers to participate in studies that may elucidate how these headaches occur. Triple fudge ripple, anyone?