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Pagophagia is the medical term for compulsively consuming ice or iced drinks. Children and pregnant women often experience this, but it can occur in anyone.

Many people who want to cool down or feel refreshed chew on ice or add it to a drink. Sucking on ice cubes can also help relieve dry mouth.

However, continually consuming ice, freezer frost, or iced drinks can indicate an underlying condition that needs medical attention. It can also damage the teeth.

Read on to discover the possible causes of ice cravings and the available treatments.

a plate of ice where if someone eats it it is considered eating ice, pica or papophagiaShare on Pinterest
Eating ice may cause dental issues.

When a person compulsively craves and consumes ice, the medical term for this is pagophagia. It is a rare form of an eating disorder called pica.

People who experience pica may:

Pica can also affect children who have experienced stress, neglect, or abuse.

A person with pica may have compulsive cravings for nonfood items, such as hair, dirt, chalk, paint, charcoal, or clay.

If these cravings are persistent and last for longer than 1 month, see a doctor, as medical attention may be necessary.

Pica is common in children and pregnant women, but it can develop in anyone.

Iron deficiency anemia

Some researchers have suggested a link between iron deficiency anemia and craving ice, but the underlying reasons remain unclear.

For example, according to one study, around 4% of participants without iron deficiency anemia experienced compulsive ice chewing, while 56% of those with anemia had the experience.

People with anemia have low levels of red blood cells, which are essential for carrying oxygen around the body. In people with iron deficiency anemia, a lack of iron is responsible for the low levels of these cells.

A person with any form of anemia may experience:

  • fatigue
  • pale skin
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • heart palpitations
  • breathlessness
  • chest pain
  • a swollen tongue
  • cold hands, feet, or both

One study that looked at people with iron deficiency anemia found that 13 of the 81 participants had symptoms of pagophagia. Taking iron supplements eliminated ice cravings in some of these individuals.

Other research suggests that iron supplementation may also provide relief from other pica symptoms.

One theory about the link between anemia and pagophagia is that chewing ice makes people with iron deficiency anemia feel more alert. In a 2014 study, people with iron deficiency anemia who chewed ice performed better on tests for attention and response time.

The researchers suggest that the coldness might increase blood flow to the brain by constricting blood vessels or activating the nervous system.

Pregnancy, menstruation, and breastfeeding

Iron deficiency anemia may develop during pregnancy, menstruation, and breastfeeding. Researchers note that during these times, people have an increased risk of compulsive ice cravings.

Emotional stress

Some people chew on ice to help cope with emotional stress.

In one case study, for example, a woman’s ice cravings appeared with stress related to her son’s education and continued after that.

There may also be links between pagophagia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD experience compulsive behaviors, obsessive thoughts, or both.

Nutritional problems

Underlying dietary issues can exacerbate cravings for ice.

Because it is common to add flavored syrups to shaved ice, cravings for ice may, in fact, be sugar cravings. It is important to eat flavored ice only in moderation, due to its high sugar content.

Dehydration

Mild dehydration can lead to ice cravings. Sucking on ice cubes can cool the body, quench thirst, and moisten dry lips. The symptoms of mild dehydration are thirst and darker-than-usual urine.

Anyone who is experiencing symptoms of more severe dehydration, such as dizziness and confusion, requires treatment. This issue can lead to seizures and be life threatening.

Eating ice is not usually dangerous. However, depending on how frequently the consumption occurs and the underlying cause, a person may be at risk of:

Dental and oral issues

Consuming a lot of ice can damage tooth enamel and cause cracks or chips in the teeth. This can lead to further problems, such as increased sensitivity to temperature and oral pain.

In one case report, doctors related that a person who had chewed 30 ice cubes or more each day for over 20 years — using the teeth on the left side — experienced changes in the jaw and cavities on that side only.

People who continually chew ice may need dental work for cavities, including replacing lost fillings.

Anemia complications

If anemia underlies pagophagia, a person may have a higher risk of:

  • infection (in children)
  • stunted growth or development (in children)
  • cardiovascular problems, such as an enlarged heart or heart failure

During pregnancy, anemia can harm the health of the mother and fetus. It can also lead to premature birth or low birth weight.

Dietary problems

People who eat ice with flavored syrup may have an increased risk of weight gain and health problems related to high sugar consumption.

Other pica complications

Ice is unlikely to cause internal damage. However, pica may also express in other ways, such as in cravings for nonfood items such as charcoal, paint chips, or soap.

Eating these kinds of things can cause severe internal problems, such as:

  • infections
  • bowel issues, including intestinal obstructions and tears
  • poisoning
  • choking

If a person with ice cravings requires treatment, the best method will depend on the cause of the cravings.

Pica can be an expression of a mental health condition. Depending on the diagnosis, the doctor may recommend therapy in combination with antidepressants or antianxiety medications.

People with pagophagia and iron deficiency anemia may find that taking iron supplements relieves their ice cravings.

A dentist can address oral health problems that stem from eating ice.

Sucking on or chewing ice in moderation is unlikely to cause harm.

However, anyone who feels a compulsion to eat ice may require medical attention. If ice cravings last for longer than 1 month, a doctor should investigate the underlying cause.

If a pregnant woman experiences ice cravings, she should consult a doctor right away, because the pagophagia can indicate anemia. The doctor will order a blood test and may prescribe iron supplements.

Iron supplements are available for purchase online. However, consult a doctor before trying any supplement.