What is PICA?

Pica is an eating disorder wherein there is an appetite for mostly non-nutritional substances. Pica is a Latin word for a bird called magpie known for its appetite for bigger and indiscriminate objects.


Symptoms of pica is continuous eating of non-food items voluntarily by the person affected, inconsistent with the normal practice or culture. It is not a disorder which is found in general population and it is a very rare disorder affecting insignificantly small number of people. It is also easy for a person affected by this disorder to come out of it quickly either by medical supervision or by psychological counselling or with both depending upon the level of addiction.

What do they crave for?

A person affected by pica may eat substances like ice, stone, steel, paints, hair, paper, soaps, soil, glass, chalk, buttons, clay, cigarette ashes, glue, dirt, feces etc. Eating such substances persistently beyond a period of one month at the age which is inappropriate for such eating cause mental and physical imbalances.

Who is affected?

Pica is prevalent with pregnant women, young children and people with mental disabilities.

Pica is essentially due to aberration of the mind as not only children are affected but also grownups or adults are also affected.


Consumption of such substances may be benign about which one need not be anxious or may produce serious consequences causing concern and may vary from person to person or with age.

The causes that may force a person to get addict to such eating are many. For example deficiency of iron and consequent anemia may be the underlying cause for pica in pregnant women. Anemia due to iron deficiency and malnutrition are the major causes of pica.

People with some form of mental conditions like schizophrenia or obsessive compulsive disorder may also take to eating such nonnutritive non-food substances. Obsessive compulsory disorder, previously called anxiety disorder is occurrence of repetitive thoughts and behaviors in a person. Such anxiety induce the person to repeat the same activity or ritual without any reason.

Flavors, colors or appearance of certain non-food items may be attractive to some persons who develop a craving to eat such substances.

Effects of PICA

  • Eating such substances may lead to blocking of the intestine, choking, parasitic infections and may even become poisonous like lead poisoning. Normal food and water consumed are obstructed from passing through the intestine in people affected by pica.
  • Moreover swallowing insoluble objects may create perforation of the intestines, stomach walls and bowels. Swallowed indigestive objects, called bezoar, block the intestine and gastrointestinal tract.


PICA in children

Infants and young kids have a tendency to put into their mouth whatever object they come across. But they normally do not swallow all such things. This is only an innocent exploration of things by kids. But when such practice continues beyond a short duration and when they become habitual, it may be a symptom of pica.

Moreover young children who have disabilities like autism or poor growth of intellect matching the age or when there is an injury to the brain may be affected by pica.


There is no laboratory test to confirm pica. Rather no test is necessary as the habit is obvious. However clinical history of the patient may be helpful in inferring the cause. Existence of any other disorder like mental retardation, disabilities in normal development of the physique should be ascertained before diagnosing for pica.

Psychological evaluation of the person has to be carried out to determine whether the person is suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder or any other mental health problem.

Tests can be conducted for anemia, intestinal blockages or to find out the toxic effect of the objects swallowed by the person. Test to know the nutrient levels in the body, hemoglobin level and iron and zinc levels may be carried out to initiate appropriate treatment needed.


  • Based on test results iron and vitamin supplements may be prescribed for regular consumption by the patient.
  • In addition to supplements to enhance the nutrients in the body medications to alleviate any mental or behavioral problem are also administered simultaneously.
  • More than medicines it is the behavioral strategies that are very important to make the person get out of the disorder. The obsession and consequent compulsory behavior has to be totally removed to relieve the person of the disorder.
  • Chelation therapy is undertaken to purge lead accumulated in the body through urine.
  • Pica goes away in a few months particularly in children if necessary supplements are taken after clinical tests. Pica may last for years in the case of people with mental disabilities.


Kripa Sivasubramanian, MBA, earned her Master’s degree in Business. After a long stint in the Technology sector, she took up courses in natural medicine and yoga. Ms. Kripa is certified in Ayurvedic yoga for Dosha. She is also certified by Stanford University School of Medicine in Introduction to Food and Health.