Ask the doctor: What causes a craving for ice?

Q. I recently developed a craving to chew on several ice cubes a day. What causes this? Is it unhealthy?

A. The compulsion to chew ice is a form of pica, a condition characterized by a craving for nonfood substances such as dirt, chalk, glue, cornstarch, or paper. Pica is more common in children but may also occur in adults. In adults, pica for ice — called pagophagia — is most often associated with pregnancy and iron-deficiency anemia, a condition in which the lack of iron in the bloodstream impedes the body's ability to make normal red blood cells. We don't know why or how a craving for chewing ice develops. People with iron-deficiency anemia sometimes have inflammation of the tongue, and ice may relieve the discomfort. Occasionally, chewing ice is a sign of emotional distress.

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