When you’re really hot or really sick, sucking on an ice cube or two can provide immediate relief. It’s an easy way to cool down or to rehydrate when you’re too nauseated to drink water.
But, if you’re compulsively chowing down on ice on a regular basis, there may be something deeper going on. Here’s what you need to know:
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Why Do I Crave Ice?
The compulsion to eat ice, pagophagia, is a form of pica. Pica is a disorder that involves eating things that are not necessarily food and have little to no nutritional value. This can include ice, dirt, paper, and more.
People with certain mental illnesses, like schizophrenia or OCD, can sometimes develop pica as a coping mechanism. Even something as seemingly simple as stress can cause pica.
It is also often a sign of an underlying physical problem, like anemia.
Iron Deficiency Anemia
Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia, which is characterized by a decreased level of hemoglobin (the protein responsible for carrying oxygen to your tissues) in the red blood cells.
This kind of anemia occurs when you’re deficient in the mineral iron. When there’s not enough iron, there’s not enough hemoglobin to go around. Obviously, this presents a problem: Your body needs oxygen, and without an adequate amount of hemoglobin, it’s not getting as much as it needs.
When you have iron deficiency anemia, you may experience a craving for ice. Experts aren’t sure why this happens, but one theory suggests that consuming ice may result in a mental boost for people suffering from the deficiency.
Other symptoms include:
- general fatigue and weakness
- pale skin
- shortness of breath
- irregular heartbeat
- a tingling feeling
- brittle nails
- tongue swelling or soreness
- cold hands and feet
If you suspect you have iron deficiency anemia, see a doctor ASAP. In addition to your doctor’s visit, you can increase your intake of iron-rich foods like meat, leafy greens, and beans.
Is Eating Ice the Same As Drinking Water?
Yes and no. Eating ice gives you some of the same benefits as water, but drinking water is a much more efficient method of hydration.
Potential Dangers of Eating Ice
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Eating ice puts you at risk for seriously painful (and expensive) dental damage.
The American Dental Association warns against ice eating as it can cause serious injury. Your tooth enamel (the outermost layer on your teeth) isn’t built to withstand something as hard as ice. When tooth enamel erodes, it leaves your teeth sensitive and more prone to cavities.
Chewing ice can also cause your teeth to crack. Not only is a crack in your tooth incredibly painful, it will spread and become more severe until it’s treated.
If you’re not careful, a cracked tooth can lead to serious inflammation and decay.
If your compulsion to eat ice is rooted in anemia…
Most cases of iron deficiency anemia are easily treatable and unlikely to cause complications. However, untreated anemia can lead to serious health problems. For instance:
- Depression. Lack of iron leads to a feeling of general fatigue, which is often associated with depression. Also, according to some research, ferritin (the protein that contains iron) is lower in people with depression.
- Motor or cognitive delays in children. Tissue function is extremely important for healthy growth, and children who are deficient in iron are more likely to have developmental delays.
- Heart problems. Depleted oxygen takes a serious toll on your heart. People who are anemic are significantly more likely to have a heart attack or need treatment for heart disease than people without anemia.
- Pregnancy complications. The body produces extra blood during pregnancy, so mild anemia is a common occurrence among pregnant women. It’s important to seek treatment, however, as severe anemia can result in pre-term delivery or a low-birth-weight baby.
If your compulsion to eat ice is rooted in pica…
Pica is a symptom of anemia, yes, but it can also have other causes. You could be deficient in another nutrient, like zinc, or you could have developed pica in response to a mental disorder.
Eating ice puts you at risk for dental damage, but it won’t hurt your internal organs. However, pica sufferers may feel compelled to eat other things that could be potentially life-threatening.
Swallowing things that aren’t meant for human consumption can lead to:
- Poisoning. Effects of poisoning may be immediate or gradual. Many people with pica feel compelled to eat paint chips, which can result in lead poisoning.
- Intestinal blockages or tears. Your body isn’t meant to ingest certain things, so pica may cause a blockage or tear in your intestines. These are serious, life-threatening issues that require immediate treatment.
- Choking. Depending on what you’re compelled to eat, throat blockage is a serious risk for pica sufferers.
Can I Get Rid of My Ice Craving?
If your pagophagia is a symptom of an underlying physical disorder, treating the illness is key to recovery.
If you’ve developed pica in response to stress, OCD, schizophrenia, or another mental health issue, talk to a mental health professional about therapy or medication.
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