Pica eating disorder: Symptoms, Causes & Best treatment

Pica is an eating disorder that involves eating items that are not typically thought of as food and that do not contain significant nutritional value, such as hair, dirt, and paint chips

WARNING SIGNS & SYMPTOMS OF PICA

  • The persistent eating, over a period of at least one month, of substances that are not food and do not provide nutritional value.
  • The ingestion of the substance(s) is not a part of culturally supported or socially normative practice (e.g., some cultures promote eating clay as part of a medicinal practice).
  • Typical substances ingested tend to vary with age and availability. They may include paper, soap, cloth, hair, string, wool, soil, chalk, talcum powder, paint, gum, metal, pebbles, charcoal, ash, clay, starch, or ice. 
  • The eating of these substances must be developmentally inappropriate. In children under two years of age, mouthing objects—or putting small objects in their mouth—is a normal part of development, allowing the child to explore their senses. Mouthing may sometimes result in ingestion. In order to exclude developmentally normal mouthing, children under two years of age should not be diagnosed with pica.
  • Generally, those with pica are not averse to ingesting food. 

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, usually from 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 (OCD), 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.

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How is pica treated?

Your doctor will probably begin by treating any complications you’ve acquired from eating non-food items. For example, if you have severe lead poisoning from eating paint chips, your doctor may prescribe chelation therapy.

In this procedure, you’ll be given medication that binds with lead. This will allow you to excrete the lead in your urine.

This medication may be taken by mouth, or your doctor may prescribe intravenous chelation medications for lead poisoning, such as ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA).

If your doctor thinks your pica is caused by nutrient imbalances, they may prescribe vitamin or mineral supplements. For example, they’ll recommend taking regular iron supplements if you’re diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia.

Your doctor may also order a psychological evaluation to determine if you have OCD 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 2000 study published in the Journal of Applied Behavior AnalysisTrusted Source suggested 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 condition, medications for managing behavioral problems may also help reduce or eliminate their desire to eat nonnutritive items.

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.

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