What Is Pica Syndrome? Causes and Treatments

By Richard Asa @RickAsa
July 18, 2017
Doctor and female patient shaking hands --- Image by © Petrol/Corbis

The exact cause of pica syndrome is not known, but it might involve mineral deficiency and psychological age. Learn about what pica is here.

People with pica, an eating disorder, will have urges to eat soil, coal, rust, chalk, and paper, although people with pica syndrome have been known to ingest anything from animal feces to bits of metal.


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What is pica syndrome?

It got its name in the 16th century from the Latin for magpie, a bird that is known it eat just about anything.

"Pica usually appears in people of a low mental age," said Gregory O'Brien, professor of developmental psychiatry at Northumberland University, told the Guardian. "So it affects young kids and people with severe learning difficulties." O'Brien says 1 to 2 percent of people with learning disabilities suffer from extreme pica. "It's really not very common, but when it occurs, it can be bad."

For instance, an inquest was held into the death of Dewi Evans, a 61-year-old man from south Wales who died after surgery to remove a screw, a pen top, a magnet, and some coins from his bowel.

What are pica symptoms?

  • You may notice the persistent eating of things that are not food or have no nutritional value over a period lasting at least one month.
  • The substances the person eats are not part of normal cultural or social practices (such as the eating of clay as a medicinal practice).
  • Items the person may eat can include paper, soap, cloth, hair, string, dirt, chalk, metal, charcoal, and other substances.

What causes pica syndrome?

Research has linked pica to an iron deficiency, although that’s just one facet and not the only cause. There is no single diagnostic test for pica. But, since it is linked to deficiencies in the diet, a doctor may perform blood tests to check the levels of iron and zinc in the body.

The exact cause of pica is not known, and it is thought that many combined factors contribute the behavior. It may occur in as many as 10 to 32 percent of children before they’re six years old. Pregnant women can suffer from pica, as well.

Women who are deficient in iron or other nutritive metals may have pica, and some research suggests that women who had pica as children are much more likely to have pica when pregnant.

How is pica treated?

Pica is one of the most difficult eating disorders to treat because people don’t want to admit that they have it. If a child has pica, the parents may not even be aware of what the disorder is. A pregnant woman might not want to admit such cravings out of shame. Because of such avoidance or lack of knowledge, it’s that pica might be much more common than originally thought, although it can be treated with a multi-disciplinary approach that includes both mental and medical intervention.

Although hospitalizations for eating disorders are trending downward, from 1999 to 2009 hospitalizations for patients with pica increased 93 percent.

In some cultures, pica is practiced for medicinal purposes and may actually have some value, according to Psychology Today. People in some parts of Nigeria eat kaolinite (a form of clay) to fight diarrhea. The clay forms a protective coating in the lining of the intestine and binds bacteria there. Some people from areas of the American South have also commonly eaten clay.

You may eat clay, starch, or some other substance simply because you enjoy it. Some people have claimed that pica eating behavior eases anxiety and tension. Some mental health professionals categorize pica as an obsessive-compulsive disorder, which would describe your behavior if you feel powerless to stop it even you know it it’s risky.

Patients with pica and other eating disorders may also be hospitalized for other conditions, such as depression, fluid and electrolyte disorders, schizophrenia, or alcohol-related disorders. Although 9 in 10 cases of eating disorders occur among women, those in men increased by 53 percent between 1999 and 2009.


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April 01, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN