What is pica?
Pica is an eating disorder. Children who have pica eat items that are not food such as dirt, ice, bugs, wall plaster, paint chips, hair, and other items. Young children may eat some dirt out of their sandbox or sample other nonfood items. However, children with pica disorder continue to eat nonfood items for at least one month.
How does it occur?
This disorder is rare and occurs most often in infants and young children. Pica typically begins when a child is 18 to 24 months old. Pica occurs equally in boys and girls. It is more likely if a child is mentally handicapped, autistic, or has other developmental delays.
Pica is sometimes related to a mineral or vitamin deficiency, such as pregnant women who are deficient in iron. Sometimes, children with pica have family, ethnic, or religious customs that include eating a particular non-food substance.
What are the symptoms?
Children who eat non-food items may have medical symptoms. For example, eating bugs might give a child nausea. Constantly eating paint chips might cause lead poisoning if the paint is lead-based. Pica can cause malnutrition, a thin body, and mineral or vitamin deficiencies.
How is it diagnosed?
There is no test for pica. It is often diagnosed when a parent or childcare provider sees the child eating nonfood items. It might also be diagnosed when a child is treated for poisoning or a blockage within the digestive system. The healthcare provider will do a complete physical exam and ask about the child's symptoms and behavior. Your child may need X-rays or blood tests.
How is it treated?
Treatment depends on the cause of the pica, if known. For example, mineral supplements may be given to treat iron or zinc deficiency. Paying close attention to what your child eats is often the only treatment needed. Counseling or behavior therapy may be helpful.
How long will the disorder last?
Pica usually begins in early childhood and typically lasts for just a few months. It may last longer in a child who has developmental problems.
What can you do for your child?
Pay close attention to what your child eats, both at home and in child care settings. Change the child's behavior by rewarding or praising good behavior and punishing bad behavior. For example, by looking stern, and giving a brief, direct instruction, such as "No" or "Stop that." If pica continues, consider behavioral therapy for both the child and the family.
If your child has stomach pain or bloating, lack of bowel movements, or symptoms of infection, call your healthcare provider right away.
Written by Lesley Stabinsky Compton, PhD.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2005-04-13
Last reviewed: 2009-12-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes
available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical
evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.