Living With Pica

GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

Published on August 25th, 2021

Updated on October 24th, 2021

Living With Pica

Pica is a disorder in which a person eats inedible objects. People who suffer from pica will have cravings to eat non-food items and can affect a person at any age over 3 years old. It is typical for children under 3 years old to try to eat objects or put inedible objects into their mouths.

Under 3 years old, such behavior is considered a normal part of child development. Around 3 years old, a child typically develops an understanding of the difference between food and not food. This is why a diagnosis of pica is only given above 3 years of age.

A person who is suffering from pica will try to eat different types of non-food items. Such items may include:

  • Chalk
  • Toilet paper
  • Baby powder
  • Cloth
  • Dirt
  • Paper products
  • Paint flakes
  • Clay
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Cigarettes
  • Baking soda

If left untreated, pica can have serious and lasting effects on a person’s mental and physical health and wellness. Eating inedible objects can cause major issues to internal organs, and the affected person’s digestive tract can become severely and irreparably damaged.

A condition of pica must be addressed by a team of medical professionals. Pica also requires mental health treatment. This mental health disorder is often co-occurring with other mental health conditions. Mental health conditions often seen with pica include autism and schizophrenia. Affected people often suffer from intellectual or developmental disabilities as well.

Symptoms Of Pica

Pica is considered an eating disorder. To be diagnosed with pica, a person must experience a period of at least one month in which they crave and eat non-food items. Accordingly, the prime symptom of pica is eating inedible objects. As a result of eating non-food items, they will experience uncomfortable symptoms. Such uncomfortable symptoms include

  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Blood in stool
  • Broken teeth
  • Infection
  • Stomach bleeding
  • Ulcers
  • Lead poisoning
  • Signs of malnutrition

People with pica often exhibit other behavioral issues that may be linked to other disorders. This is especially the case in children. Children and adults with pica may also suffer from other intellectual disabilities or mental health issues that cause behavioral challenges.

Causes Of Pica

There can be different causes to a case of pica. The condition is most often seen in children, but it can also be seen in adults. Pregnant mothers are specifically prominent in pica cases.

Pica can occur as a result of different reasons. The condition is most often seen in children who struggle with developmental disabilities or intellectual disabilities. This includes autism and other cognitive impairments.

Pica that occurs in pregnant mothers is due to a lack of proper nutrition during the pregnancy. A deficiency in vitamins like iron and zinc can cause cravings for non-food items. Adults who suffer from anemia may also be at increased risk of developing pica. Pica may also develop in adults who suffer from schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or a traumatic brain injury.

Treatment Of Pica

Treatment for pica requires different forms of intervention. Both medical and mental health treatments will be needed. The intensity of treatment for pica depends on different factors. Factors that will affect how pica is treated include what was ingested. If pica caused the affected person to eat damaging or poisonous materials, significant medical intervention may be necessary. If the non-food items ingested only caused minimal medical damage, then medical intervention will be brief.

Other considerations for the treatment of pica include:

  • Nutritional needs
  • Mental health history
  • Pre-existing mental health or medical conditions
  • Anemia or vitamin deficiency
  • Possible cognitive deficiencies

Pica may or may not be treated with medication. Sometimes medication is needed to address medical issues resulting from eating non-food items. Such medical issues include:

  • Infection
  • Malnutrition
  • Digestive issues
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Poisoning

A doctor may also prescribe a multivitamin or refer the affected person to consult with a nutritionist. Typically, correctly addressing nutritional or vitamin deficiencies eliminates cravings and helps the affected person recover. A balanced diet helps to address vitamin deficiencies that may be causing pica.

In cases that include co-occurring mental health issues or cognitive impairment, there is also a need for psychiatric care. A psychiatrist is a doctor who specializes in medical treatment for mental illness. Consulting a psychiatrist will help determine if the affected person needs to address their mental health needs with psychiatric medication. SSRIs and antidepressants may be prescribed to aid in the treatment of pica.

Behavioral therapy can be especially helpful for people who are suffering from pica. Behavioral therapy is a form of therapy that helps people learn how to develop healthier behaviors. This form of therapy can be especially helpful for children because it incorporates methods of reward and punishment.

For treatment of pica, behavioral therapy can be helpful for both children and adults with intellectual disabilities. It utilizes different therapeutic techniques to minimize destructive eating behaviors caused by the condition.

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