Why Do We Get Brain Freeze—and Can It Cause Brain Damage? Expert Doctors Explain

Updated: Jun. 21, 2024

It's the season for slushies, slurpies, and shakes: Doctors serve the scientific scoop on why favorite cold treats going down your digestive system can sometimes make your head scream.

What is brain freeze?

Scientifically known as sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, brain freeze is caused by a rapid change in blood flow to the brain’s vessels when exposed to cold substances. Amaal Starling, MD, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, describes the process behind brain freeze: “There are blood vessels that are inside the mouth in the back of the throat, and then when they are rapidly exposed to something very cold, they constrict or become smaller,” Dr. Starling says. “This initial constriction is quickly followed by dilation. When those blood vessels rapidly change size like that, it activates the pain receptors.”

Wojtek Mydlarz, MD, an assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins, adds that brain freeze is a type of “referred pain,” where physiological changes in one part of the body cause pain in another. This experience is so severe because this sudden dilation sends a pain signal through the trigeminal nerve, extending into the midface and forehead. The brain freeze sensation originates from the tiny muscles around the blood vessels in the palate tightening and relaxing, yet the pain is experienced in the head. Although these intense bursts of pain can be sharp, they are brief and not harmful.

On a hot, sunny day, it can feel tough not to swill down a frozen treat in one massive gulp. But anyone who’s ever experienced the sharp, piercing headache we call brain freeze knows how quickly the necessity can creep up to chill on how fast you’re ingesting that frosty fun.

Also called a “cold-stimulus headache” among medical professionals, learn the facts on brain freeze…including why some people never get it.

caramelized walnut and maple syrup ice creamMagone/Getty Images

How long does brain freeze last?

Brain freeze typically lasts less than five minutes in 98% of cases. For some, the sensation may only persist for a few seconds. The duration can also vary slightly based on how long the palate is exposed to the cold and an individual’s sensitivity to temperature changes.

Why do we get brain freeze?

Dr. Mydlarz says brain freeze may be a survival reflex, where the blood vessels automatically constrict to help maintain the body’s core temperature.

Additionally, research has shown that people who suffer from migraines are more likely to experience brain freeze pain. This increased susceptibility is likely due to several factors:

  • Reactive blood vessels: Migraine sufferers often have blood vessels that react more intensely or quickly to stimuli, such as the sudden cold from an ice cream or cold drink.

  • Sensitive trigeminal nerve: Those with migraines may have a heightened sensitivity in the trigeminal nerve, which is involved in the pain signaling for migraines and brain freeze. This sensitivity makes them more prone to pain triggered by rapid temperature changes in the mouth.

  • Lower pain threshold: The neural pathways that transmit pain in people with migraines tend to be more easily activated, meaning they can experience pain from stimuli that might not affect others as severely.

Why do some people never get brain freeze?

Some people may have anatomical differences in their palate, making them less susceptible to this painful reaction. Variations in pain sensitivity can also play a role—some individuals simply don’t feel the pain as intensely.

Another factor could be the speed at which they consume cold foods and drinks. Those who eat or drink slowly allow their palate more time to gradually adjust to the temperature change, reducing the likelihood of triggering a brain freeze.

Can brain freeze cause brain damage?

Despite the intense pain it can cause, brain freeze does not lead to brain damage. The discomfort is merely a temporary response to a cold stimulus and has no long-term structural or functional effects on the brain. The Cleveland Clinic assures that brain freeze does not require medical attention, and hospitalization for it is extremely unlikely. However, if you frequently experience long-lasting headaches or if your brain freeze persists unusually long, consult your healthcare provider.

How do you stop a brain freeze?

To alleviate brain freeze, press your tongue against the roof of your mouth to warm it up, or sip something warm to counter the cold effect. The most effective strategy for prevention is to avoid triggering it in the first place.

Dr. Starling advises that when consuming cold drinks, use a smaller straw (preferably an eco-friendly reusable straw), and drink slowly to minimize the likelihood.

For more wellness updates, subscribe to The Healthy by Reader’s Digest newsletter and follow The Healthy on Facebook and Instagram. Keep reading: