Caregivers of infants and toddlers are often heard shouting the words, “Don’t put that in your mouth!” In the time frame between birth and the age of eighteen months, children explore their surroundings by putting things in their mouth. While seemingly harmless and innocent at first, this behavior turns into pica, a life-threatening eating disorder which is when non-food items are consumed on a regular basis by individuals older than 2 years old.
Pica is prevalent among 10-32% of children who are 1-6 years of age, and the type of non-food substances often differs by age. According to an Everyday Health article, “youngsters will eat paint, plaster, string, hair, and cloth. Older children consume anything from animal droppings, sand, and insects to leaves, pebbles, and cigarette butts” (Stewart, 2010).
Teens and adults with developmental disabilities or mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are often vulnerable to pica. The most commonly consumed substances are soil or clay, but individuals may also eat “lead, laundry starch, plastic, pencil erasers, ice, fingernails, paper, coal, chalk, wood, plaster, light bulbs, needles, string, and wire” (Stewart, 2010). Additionally, pica may occur during the first trimester of pregnancy (Stewart, 2010).
The leading causes of pica are reported to be iron-deficiency anemia, malnutrition, and nutrition deficiency, as well as pregnancy. Pica is also caused by a craving for a specific texture. In cases of anemia, malnutrition, and nutrition deficiency, treatment consists of referrals for vitamins and medication. Another treatment option is operant conditioning, in which individuals are given rewards for consuming proper food and punished for consuming non-food items (Rogge, 2016). While there is no official test that determines whether or not an individual has pica, testing for ingested toxins, anemia, lead poisoning, and intestinal blockages are recommended. Furthermore, the prevalence of pica may be determined by a thorough assessment of an individual’s clinical history (Pica, n.d.).
The cure rate for pica is vague. In certain cases involving children, pica may vanish with age. With individuals with developmental disabilities and mental disorders, pica may persist long into adulthood and may be reduced through the application of the aforementioned treatments. A common barrier to determining the prevalence and treatment of pica is the stigma and shame that individuals battling pica may encounter.
Most of us have experienced a craving for a “strange,” non-food item at some point in our lives. Perhaps our caregivers have childhood tales about us eating dirt or putting inedible substances in our mouths. While non-food cravings are often associated with very young children, they are also prevalent among teenagers and adults who are affected by pica. As with other disorders, the existing stigma about pica as well as its life-threatening nature, calls for a greater social awareness about this eating disorder.
“Pica,” (n.d.). National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved April 9, 2018, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/pica
Rogge, T. (2016, February 21). Pica. Medline Plus. Retrieved April 9, 2018, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001538.htm.
Stewart, K. (2010, May 10). Pica: The Eating Disorder That’s Not About Food. Everyday Health. Retrieved April 9, 2018, from https://www.everydayhealth.com/eating-disorders/pica-eating-disorder.aspx