Pica is an eating disorder characterized by the desire to eat non-food substances such as paper, dirt, or hair. Because temporary periods of eating inappropriate objects are common in childhood, symptoms must be present for more than a month and must not be developmentally appropriate. A one-year-old who occasionally eats dirt, for example, does not qualify for a diagnosis of pica.
Causes of Pica
A number of factors can cause a person to develop pica. Occasionally, the condition is caused by an underlying nutritional deficiency. Iron deficiency in particular can cause people to crave non-nutritive substances that contain iron. Pregnant women occasionally experience pica; hormonal changes and the increased need for certain nutrients can cause women to crave unusual items, including non-foods. Pica can be a symptom of autism, schizophrenia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) explains that when pica co-occurs with either autism or schizophrenia, pica should not be a separate diagnosis.
Some cultures also sanction periods of pica. For example, a person might eat a shard of glass as part of a religious issue. The DSM does not consider culturally and religiously-sanctioned eating of non-nutritive items to be symptomatic of pica.
Treatment for Pica
When pica co-occurs with autism or schizophrenia, clinicians typically focus on treating the underlying condition, rather than the pica itself. When a person endangers his or herself with pica by eating dangerous items such as lead, caregivers may need to institute behavioral controls to keep the person safe until the symptom is better-controlled.
Because sudden bouts of pica may indicate a mineral deficiency, physicians may perform blood work to uncover nutritional deficits. They may recommend certain foods or multivitamins. Brief periods of pica in children do not warrant treatment, but may require close supervision to ensure that children remain safe. Persistent pica in childhood, or the desire to eat only non-food items, may warrant a diagnosis.
- Audesirk, T., Audesirk, G., & Byers, B. E. (2008). Biology: Life on earth with physiology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
- Pica. (n.d.). Kids Health. Retrieved from http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/pica.html
Last Updated: 08-17-2015
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