Pica is an eating disorder and is diagnosed when an individual ingests non-food items. Diagnosis occurs when the individual is beyond the normal ‘mouthing’ age (24 months) of non-food items and when at least one month of ingestion causes a negative impact on their daily functioning and health.
Warning signs that a child may have pica include:
- Repetitive consumption of nonfood items, despite efforts to restrict it, for a period of at least 1 month or longer
- The behavior is considered inappropriate for your child’s age or developmental stage (older than 24 months)
- The behavior is not part of a cultural, ethnic, or religious practice.As we look into the formalities of this diagnosis, pay special attention to number two. All young children mouth items and some of these items may be ingested as well. These occurances does not mean that your child has pica. In addition, parents can generally be successful at redirecting their children and teaching them to keep non-food items out of their mouths.
A true diagnosis of pica, goes beyond the innocent exploration of a child’s surroundings.
Those with pica frequently crave and consume nonfood items such as:
- paint chips
- baking soda
- coffee grounds
- cigarette ashes
- burnt match heads
- cigarette butts
Why Do Some People Eat Nonfood Items?
True pica includes cravings for non-food items. These cravings can easily become a daily habit. Some people report that eating non-food items is comforting and enjoyable. Textures and taste are seen as appealing to some.
What causes pica?
The specific causes of pica are unknown. Research has found that the following conditions and situations may increase a person’s risk of developing pica:
- Nutritional deficiencies, such as iron or zinc may cause cravings. Strangely, the non-food item(s) chosen rarely contain the nutrients that the person needs.
- Dieting. People who diet may try to feel full by eating nonfood substances.
- Cultural factors. In some families, eating nonfood substances is a learned practice.
- Parental neglect, lack of supervision, or lack of food.
- Mental health or developmental conditions, such as mental retardation, autism, developmental disabilities, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
- Pregnancy. Experts have found that pica during pregnancy occurs more frequently in women who exhibited the warning signs of pica during their childhood, or in those who have a history of pica in their family.
Consequences of Pica
Pica is considered to be a serious eating disorder that may result in serious health problems such as:
- lead poisoning (from eating lead-based paint chips),
- bowel problems (from eating items that our bodies cannot digest like hair, cloth, etc.),
- intestinal obstruction or puncture (from eating objects that get lodged in the intestines),
- dental injury (from eating hard substances that could harm the teeth), and
- parasitic infections (from eating dirt or feces)
What should I do if my child is displaying signs of pica or has ingested a dangerous substance?
- If you think your child has ingested something poisonous, call Poison Control at (800) 222-1222.
- If your child has consumed a harmful substance, seek medical care immediately.
- If your child is at risk for pica, talk to your child’s doctor.
Treatment for Pica
Unless pica is part of a mental health disorder or a developmental disability, the good news is that pica is usually temporary and improves as kids get older or following pregnancy.
1. Talk with your child’s doctor. Your child’s doctor is a wonderful resource in helping you and your child’s caregivers understand, manage and prevent pica-related behaviors. The most common approach that doctors take in helping to take control of pica is providing education about non-food and food substances.
The doctor will also work with you on ways to reduce the likelihood that your child will access non-food items (i.e., using child-safety locks, high shelving, and keeping household chemicals and medications out of reach). Depending on the child’s age and developmental stage, doctors will work with kids to teach them ways to eat more appropriately. Medication may also be prescribed if pica is associated with significant behavioral problems that are not responding to behavioral treatments.
2. Behavioral intervention and modification. In addition to a medical doctor, families may need to work together with a mental health professional to put a plan in place to help encourage and support their child’s positive food choices. Many times, the most effective treatment comes from the collaboration between families, medical doctors and mental health professionals.
3. Consult with your child’s dentist to ensure and monitor that damage is not caused to the teeth by chewing on inedible items.
4. Remember that patience is key in treating pica because it can take time for some kids to stop wanting to eat nonfood items.
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