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Eating Ice - A Common Symptom of Iron Deficiency Anemia

Common Pediatric Signs and Symptoms

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Updated August 12, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Kids are sometimes given ice chips when they are sick, especially when they are recovering from surgery, so parents are often surprised that eating ice can actually be a symptom of that their child is sick.

While children with iron deficiency anemia more commonly eat non-food items, such as paper, clay and rocks, some crave and eat ice.

Eating Ice

Eating ice (pagophagia) does seem to be more common in adults, while kids often have other other compulsive eating behaviors, such as eating uncooked starch (amylophagia), dirt or clay (geophagia) or even paint chips.

The general term for all of these types of compulsive eating of non-food substances is called pica.

While people often think of pica as involving nonedible things like sand, plaster or paper, it can also include edible things that aren't usually thought of as food, especially if it is eaten compulsively.

Other typical pica substances can include:

  • uncooked corn starch
  • uncooked flour
  • uncooked rice
  • ash
  • baby powder
  • chalk
  • charcoal
  • pottery

The fact that it has to be eaten compulsively is likely why eating ice isn't more common in kids with pica. They don't usually have easy access to ice, or at least not as easy access as other non-food things they might eat, such as the carpet, stuffing from the couch or just about anything else they can get their hands on.

Iron Deficiency Anemia

Talk to your pediatrician if your child is eating ice or other nonfood items.

Eating ice is most often a sign of iron deficiency anemia, for which your pediatrician can easily test and treat your child.

If your child who is eating ice compulsively does not have iron deficiency anemia, then your pediatrician may do testing for other nutritional problems (zinc or calcium deficiency, etc.) or see if it is caused by a behavioral or developmental problem.

Surprisingly, no one really knows why kids with iron deficiency anemia eat ice or other non-food substances. None of the things they crave have iron in them, so it is not like it fixes their anemia. Some people even think that pica causes anemia, as eating a lot of ice and other non-nutritive things replaces healthier foods.

Whatever the link, parents should know that in pediatrics, it is usually thought that eating ice and other non-food items is associated with iron deficiency anemia.



Sources:

Kliegman: Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed.

Young SL. Toward a comprehensive approach to the collection and analysis of pica substances, with emphasis on geophagic materials. PLoS One. 01-JAN-2008; 3(9): e3147.

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