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What is pica?
Pica is a compulsive eating disorder in which people eat non-food items. Dirt, clay, and flaking paint are the most common items eaten. Less common items include glue, hair, cigarette ashes, and feces. The disorder is more common in children. It can also occur in children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. On rare occasions, pregnant women crave strange, non-food items. For these women, pica often involves eating dirt and may be related to an iron and zinc deficiency.
Pica symptoms are related to the non-food item the person has eaten. They include:
- Stomach pain
- Blood in the stool (which may be a sign of an ulcer that developed from eating non-food items)
- Bowel problems (such as constipation or diarrhea)
These symptoms are the result of the toxic, poisonous, and bacterial content of the non-food items. Repeatedly eating non-food items over a period of time can cause:
- Lead poisoning (from eating paint chips that contain lead)
- An intestinal blockage or tear (from eating hard objects, such as rocks)
- Injuries to teeth
- Infections (from organisms and parasites that get inside the body and cause disease)
How is pica diagnosed?
Many typical children chew on things such as their nails and ice, or they mouth their toys and hair. These are normal habits. But a person diagnosed with pica repeatedly eats non-food items, even if those items make them sick. They should be assessed by a healthcare provider.
- Your healthcare provider will look at your child’s physical symptoms. These could include stomach upset or bowel problems.
- If your child is in a high-risk group for pica (they have intellectual or developmental disabilities), your healthcare provider may ask if you have seen your child eating non-food items and for how long.
- If the behavior has occurred for a month or more, your healthcare provider may diagnose it as pica.
- Your healthcare provider may order tests, such as blood tests or X-rays. These can check for possible anemia, look for toxins in the blood, and find blockages in the intestines.
- Your healthcare provider may order a blood test to check your child’s iron and zinc levels. Not having enough of these vitamins is considered a trigger for eating dirt and clay in some cases.
Treatment for pica will address several areas. Your healthcare provider will address your child’s illness from having eaten non-food items. For example, your healthcare provider will treat your child’s constipation, diarrhea, ulcer, intestinal tear, infection, or any combination of illnesses. If your healthcare provider finds your child doesn’t have enough iron or zinc, they will address that with a vitamin supplement and dietary recommendations.
Another focus of treatment will address the underlying cause of your child’s pica diagnosis. Your healthcare provider will discuss your child’s home environment, educate you as a parent, and refer your child to a behavioral or mental health specialist.
Can pica be prevented or avoided?
Pica cannot be prevented. Proper nutrition may help some children keep from developing it. If you pay close attention to eating habits and supervise children who tend to put things into their mouths, you may be able to catch the disorder early, before complications can happen. If your child has been diagnosed with pica, you can reduce their risk of eating non-food items by keeping those items out of reach in your home. Be sure to monitor your child’s outside play, as well.
Living with pica
Most children outgrow pica as they get older. It usually goes away in a few months. However, high-risk populations, such as children and adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities, may need continued monitoring of their behavior and environment.