Pica is an eating disorder that involves a person eating things that they really shouldn’t be eating. Typical non-food things a person might eat when diagnosed with pica include: wool, talcum powder, paint, cloth or clothing, hair, dirt or pebbles, paper, gum, soap, and ice. Pica does not include someone who ingests diet foods or drinks that have no or minimal nutritional value.

Generally pica is not diagnosed in children younger than 2 years old, because many infants will attempt to eat things that are not edible as a part of normal childhood development. Sometimes pica might be diagnosed in conjunction with another mental disorder diagnosis (such as in autism or schizophrenia). If pica is the focus of clinical attention during treatment in addition to another mental health concern, it should generally also be diagnosed.

Pica symptoms include:

Persistent eating of non-nutritive substances for a period of at least 1 month.

The eating of non-nutritive substances is inappropriate to the person’s developmental level. For instance, a 12 year old eating dirt would generally be considered inappropriate, while it would be appropriate for a 5 year old.

The eating behavior is not part of a culturally-sanctioned practice or a part of a community’s social norms.

If the eating behavior occurs exclusively during the course of another mental disorder (e.g., autism, schizophrenia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder) or medical condition (such as pregnancy), it is sufficiently severe to warrant independent clinical attention.

Diagnosis & Course of Pica

Pica is generally diagnosed by a mental health specialist or pediatrician. It most often occurs in childhood, but can occur and be diagnosed at any point during a person’s lifetime. It is not uncommon for a woman who is pregnant to have non-food cravings, but unless it is a very severe and persistent problem, it generally is not diagnosed. It is generally only diagnosed when the behavior may result in increased medical risks to the individual, since many substances can be physically harmful. When left untreated, the course of the disorder may be lengthy (e.g., years).

ICD-9-CM code: 307.52. ICD-10-CM code for children: F98.3 and in adults: F50.8.