What Is Pica?
Pica is an eating disorder in which a person eats things not usually considered food. Young kids often put non-food items (like grass or toys) in their mouths because they’re curious about the world around them. But kids with pica (PIE-kuh) go beyond that. Sometimes they eat things that can lead to health problems.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Pica?
People with pica crave and eat non-food items such as:
- paint chips
- feces (poop)
Health problems can happen in kids with pica, depending on what they eat. These can include:
- iron-deficiency anemia
- lead poisoning, from eating dirt or paint chips with lead
- constipation or diarrhea, from eating things the body can’t digest (like hair)
- intestinal infections, from eating soil or poop that has parasites or worms
- intestinal obstruction, from eating things that block the intestines
- mouth or teeth injuries
What Causes Pica?
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes pica. But it’s more common in people with:
- developmental problems, such as autism or intellectual disabilities
- mental health problems, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or schizophrenia
- malnutrition or hunger. Non-food items might help give a feeling of fullness. Low levels of nutrients like iron or zinc might trigger specific cravings.
- stress. Pica is often seen in kids living in poverty, or in those who’ve been abused or neglected.
Most cases of pica happen in young children and pregnant women. It’s normal for kids up to 2 years old to put things in their mouth. So the behavior isn’t usually considered a disorder unless a child is older than 2.
Pica usually improves as kids get older. But for people with developmental or mental health concerns, it can still be a problem later in life.
How Is Pica Diagnosed?
Doctors might think it’s pica if a child eats non-food items and:
- has been doing so for least 1 month
- the behavior isn’t normal for the child’s age or developmental stage
- the child has risk factors for pica, such as a developmental disability
Doctors also might:
- check for anemia or other nutrition problems
- test lead levels in the blood
- do stool tests to check for parasites
- order X-rays or other imaging tests to find out what the child ate or to look for bowel problems, such as a blockage
How Is Pica Treated?
Doctors can help parents manage and stop pica-related behaviors. For example, they can work with parents on ways to prevent kids from getting the non-food things they eat. They may recommend childproof locks and high shelving to keep items out of reach.
Some kids with pica need help from a psychologist or other mental health professional. If these treatments do not work, doctors can also prescribe medicines.
What Else Should I Know?
- If your child is at risk for pica, or you see signs that worry you, talk to your doctor.
- If your child might have eaten something harmful, get medical care right away or call Poison Control at (800) 222-1222.