Pica

What is pica?

Pica is a feeding disorder in which someone eats non-food substances that have no nutritional value, such as paper, soap, paint, chalk, or ice. For a diagnosis of pica, the behaviour must be present for at least one month, not part of a cultural practice, and developmentally inappropriate – generally, it’s not diagnosed in children under the age of two, as it is common for babies to “mouth” objects, which can lead to them accidentally eating substances that aren’t meant to be eaten. Often, pica is not revealed until medical consequences occur, such as metal toxicity, cracked teeth, or infections.

Pica affects people of all genders and ages, though it is more likely to first appear among children. It can occur alongside other illnesses, including other eating disorders. In cases where it is this other illness that has caused the behaviour related to pica, a separate diagnosis of pica would be made only if it is serious enough to need clinical attention beyond that already being provided for the other illness.

People with pica don’t usually avoid regular food, meaning they may still be getting all the nutrients they need. However, some non-food items that they consume can be very dangerous, especially if eaten in large quantities. If you’re concerned about yourself or someone else, you should visit your doctor as quickly as possible so that they can refer you for appropriate treatment.

The reasons that people develop pica are not yet clear, although several scientists have linked it to the nervous system, and have understood it as a learned behaviour or coping mechanism. In some cases, people with pica have been found to be deficient in certain minerals or vitamins, but this is often not the case. The percentage of people who have it is not yet known, as different researchers may use different definitions of pica, leading to some confusion. Nonetheless, it may be more likely to occur alongside:

  • Pregnancy
  • Iron deficiency anaemia
  • Autism
  • Intellectual developmental disorders
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder and related disorders such as trichotillomania (hair-pulling) and excoriation disorder (skin-picking)
  • Schizophrenia

Some of the items that people may feel an urge to eat because of pica can be extremely harmful. If you or someone you know has eaten something that isn’t supposed to be eaten, you should seek medical help immediately. It may be necessary to contact the emergency services.

Possible signs of pica

  • Craving to consume substances that aren’t supposed to be eaten.
  • Eating substances that aren’t supposed to be eaten.
  • Physical illness as a result of eating harmful substances.

Issue date: September 2017  Review date: September 2020 Version 2.0 Sources used to create this information are available by contacting Beat. We welcome your feedback on our information resources.