Understanding Pica Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Understanding Pica Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments


Remember those moments from childhood when we sometimes explored by tasting things like mud or dirt? While it’s common for children to be curious and occasionally try non-food items, some people develop an overwhelming and persistent urge to eat these substances, which is known as PICA disorder. People who suffer from Pica disorder have an unhealthy obsession with consuming things that don’t contain any food, such as dirt, mud, paper, or even hair. Although pica is most often noticed in pregnant women and young children, it can also impact adults who have nutritional deficits or a strong desire for a particular mouth texture. (Rajput et al., 2020).

While most of the time what people with pica eat is completely safe, occasionally ingesting non-food objects can lead to major health complications including poisoning or intestinal obstructions. A healthcare provider can identify pica by reviewing medical history and conducting a comprehensive evaluation of the symptoms if we are experiencing any of these signs and symptoms.

Types of Picas

Based on the non-food substances that people consume, the numerous types of pica are classified into several categories. The following is a list of some of the most common types of pica, 

When you ingest dirt, soil, clay, or sand, you are committing geophagia. People with iron deficiency anaemia often exhibit pagophagia, which is defined as the excessive eating or drinking of ice, freezer frost, or icy drinks (Bryant‐Waugh et al., 2019). Craving uncooked rice or pasta, laundry starch, cornflour, and other starches is known as amylophagia. People who have pica often describe desiring to eat a wide variety of substances, including the following:

  • Charcoal 
  • Baking soda
  • Ashes
  • Hair
  • Pencil erasers
  • Sand 
  • Paper
  • Chalk
  • Paint chips 


Eating inedible, non-food objects is the main sign of pica. Some drugs can produce problems or symptoms, particularly in cases of persistent pica, while the majority are harmless (Shkembi et al., 2024). Because some substances are toxic or poisonous, the majority of pica symptoms pertain to the digestive system. With this ailment,  may encounter a symptom or several of them

  • Constipation 
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea 
  • Bloody stool

Causes and Risk Factors

While scientists still don’t know what causes pica, they do know that certain medical conditions, such as

  • Low iron or zinc levels in the diet
  •  Intellectual disabilities or developmental disorders, like autism spectrum disorder, can raise a person’s risk of developing pica.
  • Problems with mental health, including Schizophrenia and OCD 
  • Anaemia caused by a lack of iron 
  • Pregnancy, especially in women who may be iron deficient; 
  • Stress, especially in children who have experienced abuse, neglect, or who live in poverty 

Pica can also be influenced by cultural norms and traditions, especially in regions where it is considered appropriate to eat dirt, mud, or other non-food substances. If you additionally suffer from symptoms like excoriation (skin picking) or trichotillomania (hair pulling), you may be more likely to get pica. There are several potential causes and risk factors for pica disorder, which is defined by the incessant intake of substances that are not food.

1. Psychological Factors

A person may develop Pica disorder for psychological reasons. People with schizophrenia, developmental difficulties, autism spectrum disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are more likely to have pica (Gürbüzer et al., 2019). Some people use Pica to avoid trauma, concern, and stress. Pica can also help trauma victims such neglect, abuse, and deprivation cope with their emotions and overcome psychological suffering.

2. Biological Factors

Neurological diseases and genetic predisposition may cause Pica illness. Pica-related habits are more common in people with a family history, suggesting a genetic component. Brain chemistry and neurotransmitter abnormalities, particularly serotonin and dopamine, have also been linked to Pica-related compulsive behaviours. Anaemia due to iron shortage, lead poisoning, and gastrointestinal issues can increase pica risk. Pica can be linked to iron deficiency, where people consume ice, mud, or dirt to get nutrients.

3. Environmental Factors

Environmental factors strongly increase Pica disorder risk. Environmental contaminants including lead, mercury, and other heavy metals can enhance Pica behaviour. Lead-containing paint chips and ceramic glazes can cause lead poisoning if taken in excess due to their beautiful appearance or pleasant taste. Pica disorder prevalence depends on culture and socioeconomic background. Pica habit may be more widespread in communities that value or eat non-food items. Low-income or otherwise disadvantaged persons may experiment with non-food substances due to a lack of affordable, healthy food (Delaney et al., 2015).

Pica disorder is affected by mental, physical, and environmental factors. Understanding the causes and risk factors of this complex condition helps prevent, diagnose, and treat it. Early detection and management of Pica disorder improve outcomes and reduce health risks.


A medical evaluation, during which your symptoms will be carefully evaluated and  medical history, both personal and family, will be taken into account, can help healthcare practitioners identify pica. The physician will check for these signs in order to get a pica diagnosis

  • Consuming non-food items continuously for at least one month
  • Some societies eat clay for its possible nutritional or digestive benefits, while others consume non-food items when social or cultural influences do not support the behaviour (Jackson et al., 2020). Another example is developmentally inappropriate eating behaviours.
  • doctor may request testing to rule out nutritional deficits or other medical issues that could be influencing  eating habits if they think we might have pica. Intestinal blockage is one of the possible pica consequences that can be detected through testing. 

A doctor or nurse may recommend testing for any of the following conditions: 

  • Tests for anaemia, lead poisoning, and nutritional deficiencies can be found by blood tests.
  • X-rays and other imaging studies can look for symptoms of a bowel obstruction.
  • Examines the faeces for signs of a parasite infection. 
  • Psychological evaluation: Looks for signs of underlying mental health issues, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), that could be influencing the behaviour.

Treatment and Management

Treatment options for pica vary based on individual symptoms, underlying causes, and any associated health issues. The approach typically addresses nutritional deficiencies, underlying physical or developmental disorders, and behavioral issues contributing to pica. Treatment aims to correct these factors to effectively manage and reduce pica symptoms.

A variety of therapy options may be suggested by provider

Sure, here’s a clearer and more concise version:

  1. Nutritional supplements to treat vitamin deficiencies.
  2. Behavioural therapy, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), to address behavioural issues.
  3. Individual and family counselling for emotional support and coping strategies.
  4. Treatment for preexisting diseases and their effects.
  5. Medication for combating parasites or bacterial infections, including antibiotics.
  6. Comprehensive healthcare for both physical and mental health issues.
  7. Surgical removal for intestinal obstructions caused by pica.

There is a scarcity of effective drugs for pica treatment. The psychiatrist may prescribe antipsychotic medication; however, this medicine comes with its own set of negative effects. Treatment for pica might also involve the use of chelation drugs (Dinkler & Bryant-Waugh, 2021). Lead poisoning from eating paint chips is treated with these drugs specifically. Because the medicine forms a bond with lead, the body is able to excrete it through urine.

A holistic approach to managing Pica disease addresses the core causes, reduces harmful behaviours, and improves health. Treatment strategies often combine behavioural, pharmacological, and supportive therapy to match each patient’s needs.

Behavioral Interventions:

The foundation of Pica disorder treatment is behavioural therapies. This method aims to improve people’s habits and reduce junk food consumption. Common behavior-change methods include, Cognitive-behavioral treatment (CBT) can help Pica patients identify and change harmful thoughts and behaviours. CBT uses behavioural modification and cognitive restructuring to replace harmful coping mechanisms with healthier ones. Behaviour therapy for habit reversal enables patients to detect Pica temptations and manage their urges. Competing response and stimulus control help trainers disrupt Pica’s habits (Ferrante et al., 2023). Patients receive awards or incentives to avoid Pica and follow treatment regimens as part of contingency management. Positive reinforcement helps people follow treatment regimens and form better behaviours.

Pharmacological Treatments

When mental health difficulties are present, pharmaceutical therapy may be indicated for Pica disorder symptoms. Since there is no authorised prescription for Pica, doctors may give medications to treat symptoms of other conditions, such as anxiety and mood disorders, such as SSRIs. Anxiety and depression may cause Pica habits, SSRIs may alleviate symptoms by boosting brain serotonin. Pica disorder patients with psychotic, agitated, or aggressive symptoms may get atypical antipsychotics. These medications regulate brain neurotransmitter activity to reduce mental symptoms.

Supportive Therapies

Supportive therapies are as crucial as behavioural and pharmacological treatments for Pica disorder. Psychosocial and health needs are met by these therapies. An example of supportive therapy is, Pica practices may result from nutritional deficiencies, however nutritional therapy can help people eat healthier. Dietitians can help with personalised meal plans and nutrition education to ensure you’re getting enough nutrients (Hartmann et al., 2022). Family therapy for Pica disorder patients and their families aims to improve communication, resolve conflicts, and strengthen family relationships. Family therapy can help Pica disorder patients by addressing family dynamics and providing psychoeducation.

Individuals with pica disorder can benefit from joining peer support groups, where they can connect with others facing similar challenges, share experiences, and work towards common goals. These groups offer validation, encouragement, and practical coping strategies for managing pica habits in daily life.

Pica disorder is a complex condition involving medical, behavioural, and psychiatric aspects, necessitating a multidisciplinary approach to treatment. Through behavioural therapy, medication, and supportive therapies, patients can improve their quality of life, reduce symptoms, and work towards recovery.

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Impact on Individuals and Families

Pica disorder sufferers and their supporters may be affected. Pica disorder causes emotional and daily life problems.

Psychological Impact on Individuals with Pica Disorder

Pica sufferers can suffer long-term mental health issues. The overpowering need to utilise non-food substances can lead to remorse, embarrassment, and humiliation. Pica sufferers often struggle to control their desires, causing misery and despair. That can lower their self-esteem and confidence. Pica-related activities may increase anxiety, depression, and OCD. Constant non-food consumption may drain brain energy and impair functioning. Others’ judgement and social censure can increase loneliness and isolation. Pica can worsen emotional and mental pain due to nutritional deficiencies, gastrointestinal issues, and medical issues. Chronic health problems induced by Pica habits may worsen pessimism and despair, lowering quality of life.

Challenges Faced by Families and Caregivers

Pica disorder families and carers struggle to support loved ones and manage the disease. In circumstances where chemicals other than food are poorly regulated, safety is paramount. Carers should take extra precautions to prevent patients from eating harmful drugs.

Maintaining a loved one with Pica disorder can be emotionally draining. When loved ones take risks, family members may feel disappointed, powerless, and anxious. Due of the constant monitoring and management of Pica, carers may become exhausted. Pica illness patients’ dietary and medical needs may be too expensive for families (Rajput et al., 2020). Families may struggle to pay for medical care, therapy, and specialised nutritional therapies without health insurance.

Pica disorder can also affect relationships and families. Their siblings may feel ignored or resentful, and their parents may feel inadequate or guilty since they can’t “fix” the situation. Meeting everyone’s needs, including a family member with Pica disorder, can be tough and may require outside help. Finally, Pica disorder has serious effects for carers. We need a complete plan that focuses on understanding, compassion, and providing the right kinds of help for people and their families.

Prevention Strategies

Pica disorder can be avoided by finding it early, taking care of it, and teaching people how to lower their risk factors and adopt healthy habits.

Early Identification and Intervention

It’s important to find and treat pica disorder right away, especially in pregnant women, young children, and people who aren’t getting enough nutrients or who are growing regularly. People who work in education, care, and health care must regularly check and study their patients to find risk factors and early warning signs.

Doctor checks during prenatal care may help find pregnant women who are at risk of Pica because they aren’t getting enough calories or have other health issues. The doctor or nurse can look for signs of Pica, nutritional deficits, and growth when a child sees their primary care doctor or paediatrician (Shkembi et al., 2021). As an early intervention method, nutritional counselling and supplementation, therapy to help with mental or behavioural issues, and behavioural interventions to promote healthy eating and reduce behaviours connected to Pica are some things that can be done.

Education and Awareness Campaigns

Clearing up misconceptions and teaching people about Pica disease is important for making people more aware of it and encouraging early evaluation and treatment. Campaigns to teach the public and specific groups about Pica disease, its signs and risks can assist doctors, teachers, parents, and carers.

Medical staff must tell patients and their families about Pica’s risks, stress how important a healthy diet is, tell people who aren’t getting enough nutrients to see a doctor and tell them not to eat anything else (Delaney et al., 2015). we can find educational materials like leaflets, booklets, and online links in schools, community centres, hospitals, and other public places.

Community groups, advocacy groups, and public health departments can all work together to create and hand out regionally appropriate learning materials. Pica-related behaviours and health problems can be avoided by making more people aware of it and encouraging early help. Early detection, treatment, and education reduce risk factors and promote healthy behaviours. Customised therapy can help healthcare providers, caretakers, and the public prevent Pica disorder and improve outcomes. 

Take Away

There are some ways that pica disease makes things hard for doctors, patients, and families. When people drink or do drugs too much, they can hurt their own and their loved ones’ health. Pica is caused by things in the surroundings, in the body, and the mind, but no one is sure where these things come from.

It takes a group of experts from different fields to find and treat Pica disease. Different drug, mental, and emotional help should be a part of this plan. Pica is easier to treat and has better effects when it is found and treated early. With more research, we can better understand and treat Pica disorder, but there are still some gaps that need to be filled. There should be more studies on genetic factors, molecular processes, and ways to keep people from getting sick. Pica can affect how well treatment works and how good your life is. Healthcare workers who want to learn more about Pica disorder and help its patients need to fill in these gaps.

Reference +
  1. Bryant‐Waugh, R., Micali, N., Cooke, L., Lawson, E. A., Eddy, K. T., & Thomas, J. J. (2019). Development of the Pica, ARFID, and Rumination Disorder Interview, a multi‐informant, semi‐structured interview of feeding disorders across the lifespan: A pilot study for ages 10–22. International Journal of Eating Disorders52(4), 378-387.
  2. Delaney, C. B., Eddy, K. T., Hartmann, A. S., Becker, A. E., Murray, H. B., & Thomas, J. J. (2015). Pica and rumination behaviour among individuals seeking treatment for eating disorders or obesity. International Journal of Eating Disorders48(2), 238-248.
  3. Dinkler, L., & Bryant-Waugh, R. (2021). Assessment of avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, pica and rumination disorder: interview and questionnaire measures. Current opinion in psychiatry34(6), 532-542.
  4. Ferrante, J., Fisher, J., Sung, T., & Wenzel, S. (2023). Pica: The Mysterious Eating Disorder.
  5. Gürbüzer, N., Kartal, C., & Ceyhun, H. A. (2019). Pica in an adult patient. Psychiatry and Clinical Psychopharmacology29, 199-199.
  6. Hartmann, A. S., Zenger, M., Glaesmer, H., Strauß, B., Brähler, E., de Zwaan, M., & Hilbert, A. (2022). Prevalence of pica and rumination behaviours in adults and associations with an eating disorder and general psychopathology: findings from a population-based study. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences31, e40.
  7. Jackson, M. S., Adedoyin, A. C., & Winnick, S. N. (2020). Pica disorder among African American women: a call for action and further research. Social Work in Public Health35(5), 261-270.
  8. Rajput, N., Kumar, K., & Moudgil, K. (2020). Pica an eating disorder: an overview. Pharmacophore11(4), 11-14.
  9. Shkembi, A., Kuli-LITO, G., Skenderi, E., Tomori, S., Xhelili, G., & Durma, A. (2024). A case study of pica disorder.

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