What Is Pagophagia?

A Condition Involving Compulsive Ice Chewing

Ice in a glass


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Pagophagia is a condition that causes a person to compulsively crave and chew ice.

It’s a form of pica, which is a disorder that causes people to crave and eat items that are not food or have no nutritional value.

For example, a person with pica might find themselves longing for and consuming things like chalk or sand. 

If you are a person who has a habit of chewing ice occasionally, you should know that this isn’t abnormal and isn’t harmful to your health. However, if you find that you have an intense and sustained urge to constantly chew ice—and you do so—excessively you might have pagophagia.

In some cases, pagophagia may be indicative of an underlying medical condition like iron deficiency anemia or calcium deficiency.  

Pagophagia Symptoms 

Having a compulsive craving for ice and chewing ice for elongated periods is the biggest symptom of the condition.

A person with this condition will constantly feel the need to either eat ice cubes, frost from the freezer, or drink iced drinks.

However, pica related conditions like pagophagia could be caused by other conditions like anemia or be related to certain mental disorders like intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, or schizophrenia.

Causes

There is no single cause for pagophagia. The condition may be brought on by several things. The most common conditions associated with pagophagia are listed below.

Iron Deficiency Anemia

Iron deficiency anemia is a condition that develops as a result of a lack of iron in your body.

It is typically characterized by fatigue, weakness, pale skin, and a swollen tongue. Some people with iron deficiency anemia also develop pagophagia.

It is unclear why this happens. One theory is that it provides relief for swollen tongues in people who experience this particular symptom.

In a 2014 study on the relationship between iron deficiency anemia and pagophagia, scientists found that 16% of the participants, who all had anemia, had pagophagia.

Psychiatric Disorders 

Psychiatric disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, and autism spectrum disorder could be responsible for pagophagia.

In people with OCD, pagophagia may develop as a compulsion in response to an obsession. Research also shows that people might develop pagophagia in response to anxiety or stressful situations.

Other disorders associated with pagophagia include calcium deficiency, pregnancy, and eating disorders.

For example, some pregnant people crave ice during certain periods of their pregnancy. After delivery, these cravings tend to go away. 

Additionally, people with eating disorders might use items that have no nutritional value like ice to trick their stomachs into being full.

Diagnosis

While compulsively chewing ice might seem harmless in itself, it may be caused by a medical condition you are unaware of. This is why it’s important to see a doctor if you find yourself craving and chewing ice for more than a month.

Your doctor is most likely to test for iron deficiency first, as this is the most common medical condition linked with pagophagia. 

Pagophagia May Often Go Undiagnosed

Pagophagia often goes undiagnosed because people with the condition often think it’s harmless. However, if it is caused by another medical disorder, that disorder could also go undiagnosed which may lead to more medical complications. For instance, when anemia goes undiagnosed and is not treated, it could cause heart issues. 

Pagophagia Treatment

If your pagophagia is caused by another condition, treating the condition may help relieve your cravings.

For example, in people who have iron deficiency anemia, treating the anemia with iron supplements may help treat your pagophagia. Adjusting your diet to include iron-rich foods like fish and meat could also prevent your anemia from reoccurring. 

Depressive disorders have also been linked to pagophagia. In a 2018 case report, researchers found that administering venlafaxine, an antidepressant, along with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), to a woman who had developed pagophagia as a result of her depression was effective in significantly reducing the severity of her pagophagia.

When a person’s pagophagia is used as a coping mechanism to deal with psychosocial stressors—CBT may be used to treat the condition.

The focus of CBT in people with pagophagia is to help them find healthier coping mechanisms to deal with their emotional distress.

If left untreated, pagophagia could lead to other medical complications. The most common being dental problems. Consuming ice at the quantity and frequency people with the condition do, could damage your teeth. 

Pagophagia may cause nutritional deficiencies. For example, consuming large amounts of ice daily might prevent you from eating a balanced diet and supplying your body with enough nutrients to function properly.

The excessive amount of water consumed could cause metabolic disorders like hyponatremia—a condition that occurs when the sodium levels in your blood are abnormally low.

Coping

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with pagophagia, here are some tips to help you cope with the condition.

Take Advantage of Your Support System

Your behaviors won’t go away overnight, even after you start treatment, so rely on the people around you to help you curb your cravings. This might be as simple as removing ice blocks from your freezer.

Be Honest About Your Cravings

Hiding your cravings from your doctor and loved ones can hinder the progress of your treatment. Be open and honest about the severity of them and let people around you know if the treatment is working.

A Word From Verywell

Pagophagia is a condition characterized by the craving and compulsive consumption of ice. It’s not a fatal condition but it can be indicative of a disorder you don’t know you have.

If you’ve been diagnosed with pagophagia, listen to your doctor’s advice carefully. If the condition is being caused by another disorder, treat the disorder immediately. 

You can also prevent pagophagia from developing by preventing certain medical conditions that are correlated with the condition. This may involve eating a healthy diet and consistent preventative medical care.

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5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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