What is Pica?

Children are naturally curious and tend to explore their surroundings, often putting things into their mouth. However, if the child is constantly eating mud or other non-food items like dirt, paint chips, plaster, chalk, corn starch, ash, rust, soap, sand paper etc, then the child is suffering from an eating disorder called as "Pica".


Is pica very common in children?


Pica is quite common in children. As many as 10 to 20% of children may suffer from pica at some point in time till they reach adulthood. It is found more common in children with epilepsy, mental retardation or developmental problems (e.g. autism). Surprisingly, lot of adults also suffer from pica. Pregnant women may particularly crave for non-edible items during pregnancy. Pica is also common in people who want to diet as they may try to decrease their hunger craving with low - calorie and non- food substances.


What is the cause of pica?


Though, the specific cause of pica is unknown, there are a lot of theories prevalent trying to explain its cause. Most commonly it is suspected that emotional disturbance, parental neglect and deprivation (pica is a compensatory mechanism to satisfy oral needs). Deficiencies of iron or zinc may lead to this condition (However, it is controversial whether iron deficiency leads to pica or pica leads to iron deficiency).


Does pica lead to any health complications?


Continued consumption of non-food items may lead to problems like worm and parasitic infestation, intestinal obstruction or perforation, anemia and lead poisoning.


How do I know whether my child who is eating paint has iron deficiency?


If pica is suspected, your son may have signs of iron deficiency like pallor (pale skin), spooning of nails, irritation, shortness of breath, fatigue etc. Finally, checking your son's blood may help to determine if he is iron deficient.


What is the treatment for pica?


The treatment for pica is first and foremost a secure and stable family structure. Your child will have to be taught about edible and non-edible food substances. Your doctor may prescribe iron supplements and de-worming agents. If your child is suspected to have been exposed to a contaminated substance like lead, lead screening may be required.


If after treatment, the craving subsides, is further treatment required?


If your child stops consuming non-food items, further treatment may not be required in the future. If not then counseling might be required.



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