Spotlight on the Symptoms of Pica

Spotlight on the Symptoms of Pica
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The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which provides the diagnostic criteria for all mental disorders classifies pica as a “feeding and eating disorder of infancy or early childhood”. It is characterized by persistent craving and ingestion of nonfood items. Although it is usually found in young children, the disorder may persist in adolescents and adults as well. Read on for an insight into some of the common pica symptoms.

Craving or Ingestion of Non-Food Items

The word ‘pica’ is derived from the Latin word ‘magpie’, a bird that eats everything that it encounters. This is a typical characteristic found in children with pica who eat items that have no known nutritional value and which may cause bodily damage when ingested.

Infants and young children with this eating disorder commonly eat nonfood items such as paint, plaster, strings, hair and cloth. Older children may crave or ingest animal feces, sand, leaves, pebbles, insects, and cigarette butts.

Clay or soil is the most common nonfood item eaten by teenagers and adults with pica. Other pica sufferers may eat ice, starch, toothpaste, soap and paper.

Associated Symptoms of Pica

Often, parents don’t realize that their child is ingesting nonfood items because he/she may be hiding their habit and eating in secret. In these situations the first symptoms that are spotted are the medical complications that arise from eating a harmful substance. Depending on the item being regularly ingested, symptoms may vary from digestive problems to infections and even poisoning.

For example, a child diagnosed with infectious diseases such as toxocariasis, toxoplasmosis and trichuriasis may have been eating feces. Damage to the kidneys for no apparent reason may be a sign of lead consumption. If your child has bowel perforation and you don’t know why, it is possible that some kind of metal has been ingested. Constant gastric pain, constipation or bleeding during bowel movements may indicate consumption of clay, soil or sand. Dental problems may also be symptoms of pica and may occur if your child is eating hard objects such as rocks or pebbles.

Inappropriate Eating Behavior

If a child is ingesting such nonfood items for more than a month, a healthcare provider should be consulted. To dismiss the behavior as just a habit may prove to be dangerous for the health of the child.

DSM-IV-TR states that for diagnosis of pica the eating behavior must also be inappropriate for the child’s stage of development as well. Children younger than 18 months are usually not diagnosed with pica since mouthing objects is a normal behavior at this age. The eating behavior is considered to be inappropriate in a child older than 18-24 months.

Cravings may be Associated with Other Health Conditions

Pica symptoms usually disappear as the child grows up however nutritional deficiencies may be associated with pica in later life. For example, adults with iron-deficiency often crave ice or clay. Pica-like behavior may also occasionally occur in pregnant women but it usually stops once the baby has been born.

NB: The content of this article is for information purposes only and is not intended to replace sound medical advice and opinion.


Medline Plus: Pica,

National Center for Biotechnology Information: Pica,

Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders: Pica,

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Wikimedia Commons: File:Sroka Pica Pica II.jpg