Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford
Children and Pica: 7 Associated Risks
Pica is the characterized as a persistent eating of substances such as dirt, paint, or other non-edible objects or substances that have no nutritional value. It is estimated that between 4%-26% of individuals institutionalized suffer from Pica. Symptoms related to Pica usually begin in childhood and typically lasts for just a few months. However, it is likely to be more difficult to manage in children who are developmentally disabled or abled-differently. Often it can be a little difficult for parents to determine if a child’s placement of objects in his or her mouth is anything other than a normal part of development. Although, many small children put nonfood items in their mouths at one time or another as way of oral exploration, Pica exceeds normal, appropriate exploring. As children continue to eat nonfood items, despite efforts to restrict it, for a period of at least 1 month or longer. Children are naturally curious about their environment and might, for instance, they may put toys, crayons, mud, paint, dirt, feces, etc., into their mouths.
Once you believe an oral exploration has escalated beyond normal to abnormal and Pica is suspected, a medical evaluation is important to assess for possible anemia, intestinal blockages, or potential toxicity from ingested substances. A medical evaluation is needed to check for anemia and look for toxins and other substances in the blood, and to check for blockages in the intestinal tract. A physician may also test for possible infections caused by eating items contaminated with bacteria or other organisms. A review of the child’s eating habits may also be conducted. It should be noted before a determination of Pica can be made a physician must rule out the presence of other disorders like mental retardation, cognitive delays, obsessive compulsive disorders, etc., as a cause of the child’s bizarre eating behaviors.
Having Pica has been found to be positively correlated to several potential health complications such as: lead poisoning, learning disabilities, or brain damage from eating lead based paint, nutritional deficiencies because what is eaten (non-edible) has no nutritional value, constipation (objects eaten cannot be digested, such as rocks, stones, metal, plastic toys, etc., that block digestive tract, including the intestines and bowels), anemia, bacteria, parasites, etc. Bacteria or parasites from dirt or other objects can cause serious infections. Some infections can damage the kidneys or liver.
People with pica frequently eat nonfood items such as:
The specific causes of pica are unknown, but certain conditions and situations can increase a person's risk:
Nutritional deficiency, i.e., anemia
Cognitive delays, i.e., autism
Mental illness or conditions
Parental neglect or inadequate supervision
Some people claim to enjoy the taste and texture of dirt or clay and eat it as part of a daily habit
Have developed maladaptive coping strategies in response to stress
Untreated Pica can lead to medical emergencies and death if the craved substance is toxic or contaminated with lead or mercury, or if the item forms an indigestible mass blocking the intestines. Some children who test positive for Pica benefit from behavioral intervention and familial support from a psychologist or other mental health professional. Medication may also be prescribed if pica is associated with significant behavioral problems not responding to behavioral treatments.