Dealing With an Ice Cream Headache

Young boy outside eating ice cream.
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Do you ever experience a headache after jumping into a cold pool or eating an ice cream cone on a hot day? The name associated with this headache disorder is a cold stimulus headache. The third edition of the International Classification of Headache Disorders (2013) has classified the cold stimulus headache into two headache types:

  • A headache attributed to the external application of a cold stimulus
  • A headache attributed to ingestion or inhalation of a cold stimulus (also known as an ice-cream headache or a brain-freeze headache)

Let's review the basics of a cold stimulus headache and how to manage it.

Diagnosis

A headache attributed to the external application of a cold stimulus is a diffuse or an all-over headache that develops after exposure of one's unprotected head to a low temperature, such as jumping into a cold pool or walking outdoors on a freezing cold day. A headache usually resolves within 30 minutes of having the cold exposure removed.

A cold stimulus headache that occurs after ingestion or inhalation of a cold stimulus is usually located on the forehead or in the temples and is also not usually throbbing. The headache resolves within 10 minutes of removing the cold stimulus.

Who Gets Cold Stimulus Headaches?

One study in Neurology suggests that the lifetime prevalence of cold stimulus headache in adults is about 15%.

Additionally, a cold stimulus headache may occur more frequently in migraine sufferers. Remember, a link does not mean that one causes the other. Rather, if you are a migraineur, you might be more prone to developing a headache when exposed to a cold stimulus, than someone who does not suffer from migraines.

More studies need to be done to confirm this link.

Treatment

Management of this type of a headache is quite simple. Avoid the stimulus. Fortunately, this type of headache, while uncomfortable, is short in duration and eases once the trigger is removed.

Take Home Points

  • A cold stimulus headache occurs after exposure to a cold trigger on one's head or palate/throat and resolves after the trigger is removed.
  • This type of headache may be more common in migraineurs, but more studies need to be done to confirm this association.
  • Of course, if you have any questions or concerns regarding your headache diagnosis or if you have a new onset headache or one that follows a different pattern, contacting your healthcare provider is important.

Sources

de Oliveira DA & Valença MM. The characteristics of head pain in response to an experimental cold stimulus to the palate: An observational study of 414 volunteers. Cephalalgia. 2012 Nov;32(15):1123-30.

Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders: 3rd Edition (beta version)". Cephalalgia 2013;33(9):629-808.

Rasmussen BK & Olesen JSO. Symptomatic and nonsymptomatic headaches in a general population. Neurology. 1992;42(6):1225-31.

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