Pica is the persistent eating of substances such as dirt or paint that have no nutritional value. It is an eating disorder typically defined as the persistent ingestion of non-nutritive substances for at least 1 month at an age for which this behavior is developmentally inappropriate.
Substances that are consumed can be ice (pagophagia); hair (trichophagia); paper (xylophagia); drywall or paint; metal (metallophagia); stones (lithophagia) or soil (geophagia); glass (hyalophagia); feces (coprophagia); and chalk.
There are many potential complications of pica, such as:
- Certain items, such as paint chips, may contain lead or other toxic substances and eating them can lead to poisoning, increasing the child’s risk of complications including learning disabilities and brain damage. This is the most concerning and potentially lethal side effect of pica.
- Eating non-food objects can interfere with eating healthy food, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies.
- Eating objects that cannot be digested, such as stones, can cause constipation or blockages in the digestive tract, including the intestines and bowels. Also, hard or sharp objects (such as paperclips or metal scraps) can cause tears in the lining of the intestines.
- Bacteria or parasites from dirt or other objects can cause serious infections. Some infections can damage the kidneys or liver.
- Co-existing developmental disabilities can make treatment difficult.
- Pica often occurs with other mental health disorders associated with impaired functioning (e.g., intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia).
- Iron-deficiency anemia and malnutrition are two of the most common causes of pica, followed by pregnancy. In these individuals, pica is a sign that the body is trying to correct a significant nutrient deficiency. Treating this deficiency with medication or vitamins often resolves the problems.
- A medical professional should assess if the behavior is sufficiently severe to warrant independent clinical attention (e.g., some people may eat non-food items during pregnancy, but their doctor may determine that their actions do not indicate the need for separate clinical care)
What Is the Outlook for People With Pica?
Pica usually begins in childhood and typically lasts for just a few months. However, it is likely to be more difficult to manage in children who are developmentally disabled.
Can Pica Be Prevented?
There is no specific way to prevent pica. However, careful attention to eating habits and close supervision of children known to put things in their mouths may help catch the disorder before complications can occur.
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