There’s nothing quite as refreshing as scooping up a spoonful of shaved ice on a hot summer day. The small melty ice cubes clinking around at the bottom of your glass can cool you down and quench your thirst. And when you’re sick, sucking on ice cubes can relieve dry mouth without making you nauseous.
But what about chewing on hard ice cubes straight from the freezer? Is it bad for you?
Eating ice cubes may be one of your dog’s favorite activities, but for you it could indicate an underlying health condition. Pagophagia is the name of the medical condition that means compulsive ice eating.
Craving ice can be a sign of a nutritional deficiency or an eating disorder. It may even harm your quality of life. Chewing ice can also can lead to dental problems, such as enamel loss and tooth decay.
What causes people to crave ice?
Several conditions can cause people to crave ice. They include:
Iron deficiency anemia
Compulsive ice eating is often associated with a common type of anemia called iron deficiency anemia.
Anemia occurs when your blood doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells. The job of red blood cells is to carry oxygen throughout your body’s tissues. Without that oxygen, you may feel tired and short of breath.
People with iron deficiency anemia don’t have enough iron in their blood. Iron is essential to building healthy red blood cells. Without it, the red blood cells can’t carry oxygen the way they’re supposed to.
Some researchers believe that chewing ice triggers an effect in people with iron deficiency anemia that sends more blood up to the brain. More blood in the brain means more oxygen in the brain. Because the brain is used to being deprived of oxygen, this spike of oxygen may lead to increased alertness and clarity of thinking.
The researchers cited a small study in which participants were given a test before and after eating ice. The participants with anemia did significantly better after eating ice. Participants without anemia weren’t affected.
Pica is an eating disorder in which people compulsively eat one or more nonfood items, such as ice, clay, paper, ash, or dirt. Pagophagia is a subtype of pica. It involves compulsively eating ice, snow, or ice water.
People with pica aren’t compelled to eat ice because of a physical disorder like anemia. Instead, it’s a mental disorder. Pica often occurs alongside other psychiatric conditions and intellectual disabilities. It can also develop during pregnancy.
How is the cause of craving ice diagnosed?
If you’ve been craving and compulsively eating ice for more than one month, see your doctor. If you’re pregnant, see your doctor right away to have blood work done. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies during pregnancy can cause serious problems.
Start by going to your family doctor and explaining your symptoms. Tell them if you’ve ever had cravings to eat anything else unusual other than ice.
Your doctor will likely run tests on your blood to check for an iron deficiency. If your blood work suggests anemia, your doctor may run more tests to look for an underlying cause, such as excessive bleeding.
Can craving ice cause other conditions to develop?
If you have serious ice cravings, you may end up eating a lot more than you realize. People with pagophagia can eat several trays or bags of ice each day.
Your teeth are simply not built for the wear and tear caused by eating bags or trays of ice every day. Over the course of time, you can destroy the enamel on your teeth.
Tooth enamel is the strongest part of the teeth. It makes up the outermost layer of each tooth and protects the inner layers from decay and damage. When enamel erodes, the teeth can become extremely sensitive to hot and cold substances. The risk of cavities also increases significantly.
Complications caused by anemia
If iron deficiency anemia is left untreated, it can become severe. It can lead to several health issues, including:
- heart problems, including an enlarged heart and heart failure
- problems during pregnancy, including premature birth and low birth weight
- developmental and physical growth disorders in infants and children
Complications caused by pica
Pica is a very dangerous condition. It can lead to a variety of complications, many of them medical emergencies. While ice won’t do internal damage, other nonfood items can. If someone has pagophagia, they might be compelled to eat other substances, too.
Depending on what you eat, pica can lead to:
- bowel problems
- intestinal obstructions
- perforated (torn) intestine
How are ice cravings treated?
If you have severe ice cravings, you need to find out why. If you have iron deficiency anemia, iron supplements should get rid of your cravings almost immediately.
If you have a type of pica, treatment may be a little more complicated. Talk therapy may be helpful, especially when combined with antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.
If you’re having jaw pain or toothaches, talk to your dentist. They may be able to help you avoid serious damage to your teeth and jaw.
The bottom line
Compulsive ice chewing can lead to a variety of complications. It may also interfere with your life at school, work, or home. Make an appointment with your healthcare provider to find out the reason why you’re craving ice. A simple blood test may help you figure out the cause of your cravings and start treatment.