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Pica is a disorder in many children who have craving for non food items. Pica patients have craving to eat non food material like dirt, clay, sand, mud, glue, ice, laundry starch, hair and such other things. This craving for non food items may be associated with:

  • Nutritional deficiency, the patient may be deficient in iron and anemic.
  • Pregnancy, during which there is increased desire to eat such non food items.
  • Mental retardation or any other form of mental illness.

The word has been derived from a Latin word magpie which refers to bird that eats excessive quantity of feed. Medically pica has been associated with feeding and eating disorder of infants and children in early childhood up to the age of three. The patient or the child indulges in the activity of eating unwanted things continuously for at least one month. This behaviour of the child is inappropriate for development but the disorder makes the child crave for non food items.

Causes

The exact cause of pica has not been ascertained. This is diagnosed as a development disorder. The cause has also been linked to many other factors like cultural influence and low socioeconomic status of the family of the child, some disease or psychological disorder. Pica has also been associated with malnutrition. It has been suggested that a child deficient in iron will eat clay. In some cultures clay eating by kids is common and the young kids are taught to eat clay. Though the link is unknown but kids with iron deficiency are said to chew ice cubes. Similarly children from poor families have been found to eat paint due to lack of supervision of parents and hunger.

In case of children suffering from mental disorder, they are said to indulge in this habit due to inability to distinguish between food and non food items. Even in case of normal children who are well fed, when they start to crawl they will put anything found on the floor in their mouth. However as per the researchers, an anaemic child may suffer from this disorder as due to deficiency of supply of oxygen to brain, it may not be able to properly function and may not send impulses to prevent the child from indulging in such activity.

Symptoms and effects

A small kid suffering from pica will commonly eat clay, paint, plaster, hair and cloth. In case of older children he or she may be attracted to eat bird and animal droppings, sand, insects, pebbles, leaves and cigarette butts. The consequences of eating this material could be serious. Some of the consequences can be listed as follows:

  • A child who eats sand and soil can suffer from gastric pain and bleeding.
  • Who chews ice may suffer from bleeding gums.
  • Eating clay may suffer from chronic constipation.
  • Eating metal objects may cause injury to stomach or intestines.
  • Eating droppings can cause severe infection in to the child.
  • A child eating paint which generally contain lead, may lead to damage to kidneys and may start to suffer from mental retardation.
Treatment

Once contracted the disease may continue till the age of adolescence when the child is able to analyse the consequences of what he is doing and is able to understand counselling by parents. In rare cases it continues in case of adults unless they are suffering from mental disorder.

In some cases the non food material consumed by the child accumulates in stomach or intestines. This can be detected by X-ray examination of the child when he begins to feel pain or uneasiness.

There is no medical approved treatment for pica. In case it is due to some deficiency, it can be cured by treating the deficiency. Some doctors prescribe calcium or manganese to the patients. In case of accumulation of foreign particles, surgery may be required. If not properly treated pica could continue for years but generally the habit ends spontaneously. Educating the child to refrain from such activity is the best method of prevention.