Overview Of Pica

Pica is a pattern of eating non-food materials, such as dirt or paper.

Commonly Associated With

Geophagy; Lead poisoning – Pica

Causes Of Pica

This condition is seen more in young children than adults. Up to one-third of children ages, 1 to 6 have these eating behaviors. It is unclear how many children with pica intentionally consume dirt (geophagy).

The condition can also occur during pregnancy. In some cases, a lack of certain nutrients, such as iron and zinc, may trigger unusual cravings. Pica may also occur in adults who crave a certain texture in their mouth.

Symptoms Of Pica

Children and adults with pica may eat:

  • Animal feces
  • Clay
  • Dirt
  • Hairballs
  • Ice
  • Paint
  • Sand

This pattern of eating must last for at least 1 month to fit the diagnosis of pica.

Depending on what is being eaten and how much, symptoms of other problems may be present, such as:

Belly pain, nausea, and bloating caused by a blockage in the stomach or intestine
Fatigue, behavior problems, school problems, and other findings of lead poisoning or poor nutrition

Exams & Tests

There is no single test for pica. Because it can occur in people who have poor nutrition, the health care provider may test blood levels of iron and zinc.

Blood tests can also be done to test for anemia. Lead levels should always be checked in children who may have eaten paint or objects covered in lead paint dust to screen for lead poisoning.

The provider may also test for infection if the person has been eating contaminated soil or animal waste.

Treatment Of Pica

Treatment should first address any missing nutrients or other medical problems, such as lead poisoning.

Treating the condition involves behaviors, the environment, and family education. One form of treatment associates the behavior with negative consequences or punishment (mild aversion therapy). Then the person gets rewarded for eating normal foods.

Medicines may help reduce the abnormal eating behavior if it is part of a developmental disorder such as intellectual disability.