Understanding Pica

Understanding Pica

What is Pica?

Pica is a condition that causes people to eat non-food substances that have no nutritional value and some that can actually be harmful to them especially in substantial amounts.  It can affect children and adults alike of either gender at any age and be linked to both physical and mental health conditions.  People with pica will still eat a normal diet in addition to the non-food substance that they crave, and it can go undiagnosed if they eat non harmful items like ice.  It’s believed to be relatively common, but experts aren’t sure as research studies can have different definitions of the condition, and many cases go unreported.


There isn’t a single known cause for developing pica, but there are several things that can lead to its development.  It’s believed that anaemia, caused by iron deficiency in pregnant women can cause them to develop it. Children who have been abused, neglected or have lived in extreme poverty and suffered from malnourishment can also be at risk of developing it due to low levels of zinc and iron.

Certain mental health conditions such as development disorders and intellectual disabilities like autistic spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), excoriation (skin picking) and trichotillomania (hair pulling) are also linked with pica.  Anxiety and stress can lead to pica in certain cases as a coping mechanism and it can also be a learned behaviour, as in certain cultures and religions it is a common and socially accepted practice.

Common Types of Things People with Pica Eat

·      Paper

·      Clay, sand, chalk or dirt

·      Cigarette stubs

·      Ice

·      Animal faeces

·      Hair or shampoo

·      Rocks or pebbles

·      Gum

·      Starch

·      Material or cloth

·      String or wool

·      Talcum Powder

·      Rubber bands or erasers

·      Grass or plants

·      Paint chips

Associated Conditions or Risks

People with pica can develop a variety of medical problems from eating non food items which can include:

·      The risk of choking

·      Anaemia

·      Stomach ulcers

·      Intestinal blockages or obstruction

·      Constipation

·      Damage to the teeth

·      Parasitic infections such as roundworm

·      Electrolyte imbalances

·      Poisoning such as lead poisoning

·     Irregular heart rhythms

Professional Help

People with pica often feel too embarrassed to tell their doctor about their eating habit and only seek medical help when they start to have physical symptoms or become ill.  Pica has to have been ongoing for at least a month to be diagnosed and can not be diagnosed in children under two, who frequently put non food items in their mouth and may occasionally ingest them, as this is a normal part of their development. 

Your doctor will rule out any underlying medical health problems like vitamin or nutrient deficiencies or anaemia.  They may also refer you for a psychological evaluation if they think you need one.  Therapies such as behavioural therapy, which teaches coping mechanisms to help change behaviour, differential reinforcement and mild aversion therapy are all suitable therapies and can be tailored to the individual’s needs.  Written by Jan, Jeana and Wendy at Barnsley Hypnosis and Counselling (UK). For more free Information click above link.