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

This disorder occurs most often in children and pregnant women. It’s usually temporary. See your doctor right away if you or your child can’t help but eat nonfood items. Treatment can help you avoid potentially serious side effects.

Pica also occurs in people who have intellectual disabilities. It’s often more severe and long-lasting in people with severe developmental disabilities.

What Are the Symptoms of Pica?

People with pica eat nonfood items regularly. The behavior must continue for at least one month to qualify as pica.

If you have pica, you may regularly eat things such as:

  • ice
  • soap
  • buttons
  • clay
  • hair
  • dirt
  • sand
  • the unused remainder of a cigarette
  • cigarette ashes
  • paint
  • glue
  • chalk
  • feces

You may also eat other nonfood items.

What Causes Pica?

There’s no single cause of pica. In some cases, a deficiency in iron, zinc, or another nutrient may be associated with pica. For example, anemia, or iron deficiency, may be the underlying cause of pica in pregnant women. Your unusual cravings may be a sign that your body is trying to replenish low nutrient levels.

People with certain mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder may develop pica as a coping mechanism.

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

Dieting and malnourishment can both lead to pica. In these cases, eating nonfood items may help you feel full.

How Is Pica Diagnosed?

There’s no test for pica. Your doctor will diagnose this condition based on history and several other factors.

You should be honest with your doctor about the nonfood items you’ve eaten. This will help them develop an accurate diagnosis. It may be hard for them to determine you have pica if you don’t tell them what you’ve been eating. The same is true for children or people with intellectual disabilities.

Your doctor may test your blood to see if you have low levels of zinc or iron. This can help your doctor learn if you have an underlying nutrient deficiency, such as anemia. Nutrient deficiencies may sometimes be related to pica.

What Are the Complications Associated with Pica?

Eating certain nonfood items can sometimes lead to other serious conditions. These conditions can include:

  • poisoning, such as lead poisoning
  • parasitic infections
  • intestinal blockages
  • choking

How Is Pica Treated?

Your doctor will probably begin by treating any complications you’ve acquired from eating nonfood items. For example, if you have lead poisoning from eating paint chips, your doctor may prescribe chelation therapy. In this procedure, you’ll take medication that binds with lead. This will allow you to excrete the lead in your urine. Your doctor may also prescribe other medications for lead poisoning, such as ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, or EDTA.

If they think your pica is caused by nutrient imbalances, your doctor may prescribe vitamin or mineral supplements. For example, they might recommend taking regular iron supplements.

Your doctor may also order a psychological evaluation to determine if you have obsessive-compulsive disorder or another mental health condition. Depending on your diagnosis, they may prescribe medications, therapy, or both.

Until recently, research hasn’t focused on medications to help people with pica. A study published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis suggests that a simple multivitamin supplement may be an effective treatment in some cases. If a person with pica has an intellectual disability or mental health disorder, medications for managing behavioral problems may also help reduce or eliminate their desire to eat nonnutritive items.

What Is the Outlook for People with Pica?

In children and pregnant women, pica often goes away in a few months without treatment. If a nutritional deficiency is causing your pica, treating it should ease your symptoms.

Pica doesn’t always go away. It can last for years, especially in people who have intellectual disabilities. Your doctor will help you understand the outlook for your specific case and what you can do to help manage the condition.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Gretchen Holm
Medically reviewed on: Feb 29, 2016: George Krucik, MD MBA

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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