What Is Pica?

People with the disorder pica compulsively eat items that have no nutritional value. An affected person might eat relatively harmless items like ice or potentially dangerous items like flakes of dried paint or pieces of metal. In the latter case, the disorder could lead to serious consequences such as lead poisoning.

This disorder occurs most often in children and pregnant women. Fortunately, it is usually temporary. If you or your child can’t help but eat nonfood items, see a doctor right away. Treatment can help you avoid the potentially serious side effects of this disorder.

Pica also occurs in people who have developmental disabilities. It is often more severe and long lasting in people with severe developmental handicaps.

What Causes Pica?

There is no single cause of pica. In some cases, a deficiency in iron, zinc, or another nutrient may lead to pica. The body will attempt to replace these elements through “food.” Anemia (iron deficiency) may be the underlying cause of pica in pregnant women.

Individuals with certain mental issues, such as schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder may develop pica as a coping mechanism.

Some people may enjoy and crave the textures or flavors of certain nonfood items. In some cultures, eating clay—a form of pica called geophagia—is an accepted behavior.

Dieting and malnourishment can both lead to pica. In these cases, eating nonfood items can lead the sufferer to feel full.

What Are the Symptoms of Pica?

People with pica eat nonfood items regularly. For the disorder to qualify as pica, the behavior must continue for at least one month. Items that someone with pica may consume include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • ice
  • soap
  • buttons
  • clay
  • hair
  • dirt
  • sand
  • cigarette butts or ashes
  • paint
  • glue
  • chalk
  • feces

Consuming these items can lead to other serious conditions. These conditions include lead poisoning, parasitic infections, intestinal blockages, and asphyxiation (choking).

How Is Pica Diagnosed?

There is no test for pica. Your doctor will diagnose this condition based on several other factors.

You must be honest with your doctor about the nonfood items you have eaten to obtain an accurate diagnosis. It may be hard for your doctor to figure out that you have pica if you do not explain that you have been eating these items. The same is true for children or developmentally or mentally disabled persons.

Your doctor may test your blood to see if you have low levels of zinc or iron. Because these deficiencies can sometimes lead to pica, testing for abnormal levels can help your doctor figure out if you have an underlying condition such as anemia.

Your doctor may also check for complications that can result from pica. These include infections, parasites, gastrointestinal blockages, and poisoning.

How Is Pica Treated?

Treating pica usually begins with treatment for any complications you may have acquired from eating nonfood items. Then, your doctor may order a psychological evaluation to determine if you have obsessive-compulsive disorder or other psychological issues. These issues can be addressed with therapy and medication.

Until recently, research has not focused on medications that could help those with pica. There is some evidence that a simple multivitamin supplement could be an effective treatment in some cases (Pace, GM and Toyer, EA, 2000). If a person with pica has a developmental disorder, some medications that are used to manage severe behavioral problems in children may reduce or eliminate the desire to eat nonnutritive items.

What Is the Outlook for Individuals with Pica?

Pica often goes away in a few months without treatment in children and pregnant women. Treating a nutritional deficiency that is causing pica should ease your symptoms.

Unfortunately, pica does not always go away. It can last for years, especially in those who have mental or developmental handicaps. Your doctor will help you understand the outlook for your specific case.