When you see someone eating or craving non food items or other strange things, it’s likely a pica disorder. They will crave substances with little to no nutritional value, and often the things they eat are not fit for human consumption.

While pica disorder is hard to understand, learning the causes and symptoms can help you identify it. Plus, learning why someone craves strange, unhealthy things can help you understand that person better. Once you can identify the symptoms, you will know when to get help and start treatment for pica disease.

This disorder typically occurs in children and pregnant women, but it is becoming more common in men, too. It also occurs in people with intellectual disabilities, and it is more severe and long-lasting for this group.

Pica disorder is dangerous, but you can help yourself or someone else overcome it. Getting pica treatment will be life-changing, and it can potentially save a life.

What Is Pica Disorder?

pica disorder
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, pica is a psychological disturbance. Pica is an eating disorder that causes people to consume substances with little nutritional value and severely harm the body.

People that suffer from this disorder might consume strange things for more than one month straight. Additionally, the person must be old enough to understand that the substance is unfit for human consumption. If these two things apply, then the ailment can be described as a Pica disorder.

What Are the Symptoms of Pica Disorder?

The symptoms of pica vary, but most occur due to consuming toxins, poisonous content, and bacteria. Some of the symptoms include:

  • stomach pain or abdominal cramping
  • nausea
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • stomach ulcers
  • blood in the stool
  • symptoms of lead poisoning
  • infections
  • behavioral problems
  • fatigue
  • symptoms of poor nutrition
  • problems at work or in school
  • bloating

What Are the Causes of Pica Disorder?

So far, there are no direct causes of pica, but there are some direct correlations involved. Some of the things that cause or trigger pica include:

  • emotional trauma
  • family issues related to abuse or neglect
  • pregnancy cravings
  • vitamin and mineral deficiencies
  • anemia or low red blood cells
  • anxiety
  • mental health conditions such as schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • developmental disorders and intellectual disabilities
  • suffering from hunger
  • stress

What Do People with Pica Disorder Eat?

People that struggle with pica might ingest:

  • dirt
  • clay
  • paper
  • sand
  • chalk
  • animal or human feces
  • paint chips
  • ice
  • gum
  • shampoo, soap, or detergent
  • hair
  • plants, flowers, or grass
  • talcum powder
  • wool
  • cloth
  • string or yarn
  • rubber bands
  • small toys
  • rocks
  • cigarette butts or ashes
  • wood
  • metal
  • glass
  • caulk
  • paint
  • drywall
  • deodorant
  • perfume
  • baby powder
  • buttons
  • glue
  • chalk

What Are the Complications Associated with Pica Disorder?

After continually eating substances that aren’t fit for human consumption, the person can experience complications, including:

  • hairballs in the stomach or digestive tract
  • poisoning
  • parasitic infections
  • blockages in the digestive tract
  • choking
  • learning disabilities
  • brain damage
  • nutritional deficiencies
  • tears in the esophagus or intestine lining
  • bacterial infections
  • kidney or liver damage
  • injuries to the teeth

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How Is Pica Disorder Diagnosed?

Pica disorder is typically only diagnosed if someone consumes a strange substance for at least one month. The person has to be over the age of two because children younger than that don’t fully understand that they shouldn’t eat some things. Plus, a person can’t get diagnosed if they are consuming substances for religious or cultural practices.

When a doctor diagnoses you, one of the things they consider is the severity of your condition. For a diagnosis, the strange eating disorder must cause a need for physical or psychological medical attention. Typically, people don’t receive the diagnosis until they land themselves in the hospital due to a complication.

Eating non-edible things does not automatically command this diagnosis. So, someone that nibbles on soap, grass or other weird things occasionally won’t receive a pica diagnosis. If the occasional taste becomes an irresistible craving or urge, a doctor will likely work toward a diagnosis.

There isn’t a specific test for pica, but doctors have a few methods to help reach a diagnosis. The patient must be honest with the doctor about which items they ate and the amount they consumed.

Honesty will help with the accuracy of a diagnosis, and if the patient is unable to provide this information, the doctor might want reports from family members.

Your doctor might check your blood to look for low zinc or iron levels. They will also use the bloodwork to determine if there is poison in the bloodstream. In some cases, they will request a stool sample to check for intestinal bleeding or damage.

The patient may also need an X-ray or other imaging tests to determine if there is an intestinal blockage. Additionally, the doctor will do tests to look for parasites or bacteria, and they will evaluate weight loss.

A doctor will likely evaluate the patient for other disorders, too. If intellectual or developmental disabilities or obsessive-compulsive disorder are the culprits, addressing those issues is essential.

How Is Pica Disorder Treated?

Pica disorder is complicated to treat, but it is possible after a diagnosis. Since the diagnosis typically only comes when emergency treatment is necessary, it increases the severity of the issues. Because of this, the treatment options change for each case.

Additionally, the treatment options vary based on the underlying cause of the disorder. Someone with a mineral deficiency will receive much different treatment than those with a mental illness. If a mental illness is a cause, the most important treatment for pica is counseling and behavioral therapies.

Before treating the underlying cause of pica, though, the doctor will treat any complications. If they believe your pica is caused by nutrient imbalance, the doctor will likely prescribe mineral or vitamin supplements.

If the patient has lead poisoning from eating paint chips, the doctor might prescribe chelation therapy. This type of therapy involves taking medication that binds with lead, allowing excretion of lead through urine. The medication can be taken orally or through an IV.

A doctor will also treat the symptoms of pica, which differ based on the substances consumed. The doctor might prescribe medications for constipation or diarrhea, or they might treat stomach ulcers. Antibiotic treatment will be used to treat infections, and other treatment options will be suggested for other symptoms.

What Is the Outlook for People with Pica Disorders?

Pica sometimes goes away after a few months, even without treatment. Otherwise, you must treat the underlying cause of the disorder if you want a positive outlook. Once you address the underlying cause, it should ease and eliminate the symptoms.

The treatment success rate varies depending on underlying causes, complications, and severity. Since all cases of pica are different, the doctor will discuss the expected outcome for each specific case. Managing the disorder is essential for the best possible situation.

If a child with pica receives a medical assessment and behavioral evaluation, their outcome is more successful. These options can help them overcome the issue quicker and more effectively than others.

Children with pica tend to outgrow it as they age, and it gradually improves over time. If the child has a mental illness or developmental disability, it could continue into their teenage years and adulthood. Unfortunately, pica sometimes doesn’t go away and can last for years, especially for those with disabilities.

Can Pica Disorder Be Prevented?

There isn’t a specific way to prevent pica, but there are some methods that can work. Paying close attention to eating habits can help because it promotes a connection between the mind and body. When you think about what you’re eating, it helps meet nutrient intake goals, possibly limiting the desire to eat other things.

Another way to prevent pica is by closely supervising children that tend to put things in their mouth. By watching closely, you can help catch and reverse the disorder before complications arise. Without complications, the disorder will be easier to treat before it gets out of hand.

For children, it is also wise to keep non-food items out of their reach if they are known to eat strange things. By keeping these items out of reach, the child can break this habit before it becomes a severe disorder.

Additionally, ensuring proper nutrition every day can prevent a desire to consume strange substances. Since pica often stems from a lack of nutrition, a person might be less likely to eat unfit things for human consumption. Eating metal, for example, might point to mineral deficiencies. If the person never misses out on essential nutrients, the disorder is less likely to develop at all.

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Final Thoughts on Pica Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Pica can affect anyone, so make sure that you remember the causes and symptoms. Knowing the causes of pica can help prevent, and recognizing the symptoms can help with a diagnosis. Treatment options vary based on the substance consumed, the severity, and the underlying cause.

Whether you consume non-food items or someone in your life does, it is essential to begin treatment. The sooner treatment begins, the better the outcome will be. If treatment begins before complications arise, it can be less invasive and easier to overcome.