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Expert Q&A

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Why does the cold wind make my head hurt?

Asked by Kathleen Williams, Dothan, Alabama

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Why does the cold wind make my head hurt, even when I wear earmuffs?

Expert Bio Picture

Living Well Expert Dr. Jennifer Shu Pediatrician,
Children's Medical Group

Expert answer

Thanks for your question. You are describing a phenomenon known as "cold stimulus headache," sometimes called "brain freeze" by children eating ice cream very quickly. It occurs when something cold (such as a food, drink or air) stimulates an area of the head and causes a headache.

To get more information about this occurrence, I interviewed Dr. Mark Brown, an Austin, Texas, physician who is board certified in Otolaryngology, Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and Sleep Medicine.

How common are cold stimulus headaches?

The frequency of these headaches is hard to pin down. In limited population studies from Denmark and Taiwan, the lifetime prevalence varies from 15 percent and 41 percent respectively. One new area of interest is in cold water divers, in whom these severe headaches need to be differentiated from "the bends." Also, cold stimulus headaches may be more common in migraine sufferers.

What causes them?

It is thought that stimulation of the trigeminal nerve (the nerve that provides sensation information for most of the face, head, mouth, throat and neck) by cold temperature causes constriction of blood vessels in the brain (somewhat like a migraine) and thus a headache.

How do you treat cold stimulus headaches?

As these headaches are typically very short lived (usually five minutes at the most), there is generally not much to do other than avoidance. It can also be helpful to cover exposed areas of the head and neck when venturing into cold weather. In addition to earmuffs, wear a hat and scarf.

Any other tips?

Eat your ice cream slowly. You can maximize your enjoyment of your guilty pleasure and minimize the likelihood of a nasty headache!

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