Anyone who has watched the classic holiday film "A Christmas Story" can probably recall the scene where one of the characters got his tongue stuck on a frozen, metal pole after he was dared to lick it.
While that may be the most well-known instance of a person getting their tongue or skin stuck to a frozen pole, it is far from the only one. Kids regularly dare their friends to lick frozen poles every winter, particularly in colder areas. It even happens frequently enough that the Canadian Red Cross calls it a “common Canadian sticky situation.”
Can your tongue stick to a frozen metal pole if you lick it?
- Frank DiSalvo, Ph.D., in an FAQ for the Cornell Center for Materials Research
- National Center for Families Learning (NCFL)
- Healthwise, a nonprofit health information organization
- Jesus Jimenez, M.D., a primary care physician with University Health, as interviewed by VERIFY sister station KENS
Yes, your tongue can stick to a frozen metal pole if you lick it.
WHAT WE FOUND
The reason your tongue will stick to a frozen metal pole is because your tongue is moist, and so the water on your tongue and in its crevices will freeze while on the pole. The same can happen to your skin if you’re sweating wherever you touch the pole.
But we still eat frozen things without problem. People don’t get ice cream stuck to their tongue when they try to eat it. So what’s the difference?
It all has to do with a characteristic every physical thing has called thermal conductivity, according to Frank DiSalvo, Ph.D., in an FAQ for the Cornell Center for Materials Research. A material with high thermal conductivity can take away a lot of heat from whatever it’s touching.
Metal conducts heat incredibly well. It can conduct heat about 400 times better than your tongue can, says the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL).
You’re probably most familiar with this phenomenon when metal gets really hot. When there is a heat source put next to a metal, let’s say a pan on a stove, the metal takes a lot of that heat into itself and gets much hotter than it was before because it’s so conductive. This is why most pans with metal handles can burn your hand.
DiSalvo said that he’s experimented many times with putting his tongue to a piece of plastic or rubber as cold as -300 degrees, and it has never stuck. Again, think of a pan on a stove — you’re less likely to be burned when touching a panhandle that’s plastic.
Your body is constantly trying to warm your tongue by pumping blood through it. Typically, this is enough, because inside your mouth, there’s nothing to conduct that heat away from it. But the NCFL explains that when your tongue touches a frozen metal pole — that’s a pole under 32 degrees Fahrenheit — and sticks to it, the metal robs your tongue of heat faster than your body can replace it. That freezes the moisture on and in your tongue, and the frozen moisture remains stuck to the pole.
DiSalvo notes that ice has a thermal conductivity between metal and plastics, so if a popsicle or the ice on a pond is cold enough, they too can stick to your tongue.
What do you do if you, your child or someone else’s tongue or skin gets stuck to a metal pole?
The first step is to not panic. According to Healthwise, a nonprofit health information organization that wrote this information for Alberta Health Services and healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente among others, pulling or tugging could cause an injury.
Then you have a couple of things you could try. First, if you want to get yourself unstuck, you could try breathing or blowing warm breaths on the area you’re stuck to. But if you have someone else to help you, or if you’re helping somebody else get unstuck, you’ll want to pour warm water on the metal and on the part of your body that’s stuck.
“Maybe just drip [the water] down the pole and a little bit on the tongue,” advised Jesus Jimenez, M.D., in an interview with VERIFY sister station KENS. “Just to have that water pretty much going to heat up the ice around the connection.”
If it’s impossible to get unstuck from the pole, even after trying these methods, then you may want to call 911.