Pica is a compulsive disorder. Think of that one person who craves non-food items. I’m talking about Dirt, clay, hair, cigarette ashes, soap, buttons, glue, chalk flakes of dried paint or pieces of metal, etc. The disorder is more common in children, but can also occur in adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as autism.
Some pregnant women also crave strange, non-food items.
SYMPTOMS OF PICA
The behavior must continue for at least one month to qualify as pica. The symptoms are a result of the toxic, poisonous, and bacterial content of the non-food items. They include:
- Stomach upset.
- Stomach pain.
- Blood in the stool (which may be a sign of an ulcer that developed from eating non-food items).
- Bowel problems (such as constipation or diarrhea).
EFFECTS/COMPLICATIONS OVER A PERIOD OF TIME
Lead poisoning. Increasing the child’s risk of complications including learning disabilities and brain damage. This is the most concerning and potentially lethal side effect of pica.
Intestinal blockage or tear (from eating hard objects, such as rocks). Eating objects that cannot be digested can cause constipation or blockages in the digestive tract. This includes the intestines and bowels. Also, hard or sharp objects can cause tears in the lining of the esophagus or intestines.
Injuries to teeth.
Parasitic infections. Bacteria or parasites from dirt or other objects can cause serious infections. Some infections can damage the kidneys or liver.
CAUSES PICA AND MENTAL HEALTH
People with certain mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), may develop pica as a coping mechanism.
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. Some people may even enjoy and crave the textures or flavors of certain non-food 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 non-food items may help you feel full.
Treatment will address several areas. 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.
If a person with this disorder has an intellectual disability or mental health condition, medications for managing behavioral problems may also help reduce or eliminate their desire to eat non-nutritive items.
CAN PICA BE PREVENTED OR AVOIDED?
Pica cannot be prevented. Proper nutrition may help some children keep from developing it. If you pay close attention to eating habits and supervise children who tend to put things into their mouths, you may be able to catch the disorder early.
If your child has been diagnosed with pica, you can reduce his or her risk of eating non-food items by keeping those items out of reach in your home.