Usually, what people with pica eat does not harm them, but sometimes what they eat causes complications, such as blockages in the digestive tract or lead poisoning.
Doctors usually diagnose pica when a person over age 2 has been eating things that are not food for a month or more.
Behavioral modification techniques may help, but little is known about specific treatments for pica.
Nutritional deficiencies and other complications are treated as needed.
People with pica regularly eat things that are not food (such as paper, clay, dirt, or hair). For children under 2 years old, this behavior is considered developmentally normal. Young children frequently put all sorts of things in their mouth and sometimes eat them. Pica may also occur during pregnancy.
In some parts of the world, eating things that are not food is part of a cultural tradition, such as folk medicine, religious rites, or common practice. For example, some people in the Georgia Piedmont regularly eat clay.
Usually, what people with pica eat does not harm them. However, sometimes what they eat causes complications, such as constipation Constipation in Adults Constipation is difficult or infrequent bowel movements, hard stool, or a feeling that the rectum is not totally empty after a bowel movement (incomplete evacuation). (See also Constipation... read more , blockages in the digestive tract Intestinal Obstruction An obstruction of the intestine is a blockage that completely stops or seriously impairs the passage of food, fluid, digestive secretions, and gas through the intestines. The most common causes... read more , lead poisoning Lead Poisoning Some causes of lead poisoning are ingesting lead paint and eating or drinking from certain imported, improperly lead-glazed ceramics. Very high levels of lead in the blood may cause personality... read more from eating paint chips, or a parasitic infection Overview of Parasitic Infections A parasite is an organism that lives on or inside another organism (the host) and benefits (for example, by getting nutrients) from the host at the host's expense. Although this definition actually... read more from eating dirt.
Pica itself rarely interferes with social functioning, but it often occurs in people with other mental disorders that do interfere with social functioning. These disorders include autism Autism Spectrum Disorders Autism spectrum disorders are conditions in which people have difficulty developing normal social relationships, use language abnormally or not at all, and show restricted or repetitive behaviors... read more , intellectual disability Intellectual Disability Intellectual disability is significantly below average intellectual functioning present from birth or early infancy, causing limitations in the ability to conduct normal activities of daily... read more , and schizophrenia Schizophrenia Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by loss of contact with reality (psychosis), hallucinations (usually, hearing voices), firmly held false beliefs (delusions), abnormal thinking... read more
Diagnosis of Pica
A doctor's evaluation
Tests to check for possible complications
Doctors usually diagnose pica by determining what the person has been eating.
Pica is diagnosed when people persistently eat things that are not food for 1 month or longer. The disorder is not diagnosed in children under 2 years old because at that age, eating such materials is not considered abnormal. It is also not diagnosed when eating such materials is part of the person's culture.
If doctors suspect the disorder, they evaluate nutritional status Evaluation of Nutritional Status Nutrition is the process of consuming, absorbing, and using nutrients needed by the body for growth, development, and maintenance of life. To receive adequate, appropriate nutrition, people... read more to check for weight loss and nutritional deficiencies.
Sometimes pica is diagnosed when a person has symptoms of a blockage in the digestive tract (such as severe cramping or constipation) or lead poisoning and is taken to the emergency department or to see a doctor.
X-rays may be taken to check for blockages in the digestive tract.
Doctors may do blood tests to check for lead poisoning or stool tests to check for a parasitic infection.
Treatment of Pica
Sometimes behavioral modification
Treatment of nutritional deficiencies and other complications
Behavioral modification techniques may help, but little is known about specific treatments for this disorder. Behavioral modification techniques help people unlearn undesirable behaviors while learning desirable behaviors.
Nutritional deficiencies and other complications are treated. Blockages in the digestive tract may require surgery.
Pica may last several months, then disappear on its own, particularly in children.
More Information about Pica
The following are some English-language resources that may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of these resources.
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA): Large nonprofit organization that provides access to online screening tools, a helpline, forums, and a variety of support groups (some virtual)
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD): Provides access to curricula and training for medical and health care professionals, as well as peer-to-peer support groups, self-help, and other services to people with eating disorders and their families