Pica is an eating disorder in which you eat things that aren’t commonly considered food and have no nutritional value. Pica can affect children, adolescents, and adults of any race, ethnicity, and sex.

If you feel that you may be experiencing this mental health condition, it may help to learn more about pica symptoms, causes, and risk factors. It doesn’t always require treatment and can go away by itself, but a doctor might recommend treatment if eating nonfood items leads to complications over time.

With the appropriate treatment and approach, it’s possible to manage pica and develop healthful eating habits. The first step is to get educated. Let’s take a closer look.

Pica is an eating disorder in which you eat items of no nutritional value that are not typically viewed as food. This might happen as a result of a nutrient deficiency — your body’s way of telling you that it needs more of a certain nutrient. Anyone can experience pica, but it’s more common during pregnancy and childhood.

The cultural perception of the items you eat matters. For example, eating clay is a cultural practice for some groups of people in the world. For people in these groups, the consumption of clay would not be seen as evidence of pica because it makes sense given certain customs and traditions.

However, if the consumption of “inedible” substances persists for over a month, and there’s no cultural reason behind these eating habits, then it’s likely you are experiencing pica.

Like other eating disorders, pica isn’t a choice, and help is available.

Healthcare professionals most commonly diagnose pica during pregnancy or childhood, according to research. Pica often occurs with certain mental health conditions that affect a person’s thinking and behaviors. These include:

Others who may have a higher chance of pica include those who:

  • have an iron deficiency
  • are malnourished

To determine whether you or a loved one is experiencing pica, it’s important to evaluate the symptoms. Typically, pica refers to eating nonfood items for at least 1 month.

Eating nonfood items as a result of pica can lead to various digestive symptoms, such as:

  • stomach pain
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • deficiencies, such as anemia
  • intestinal blockages
  • side effects from eating toxic substances, such as the lead in paint
  • infections from eating something that contains bacteria or parasites, such as dirt

If you’re experiencing the health consequences of pica, talking with a doctor can help. They can advise you on the best treatment.

You might show symptoms of pica if you’re regularly consuming any of the following items:

  • chalk
  • dirt
  • paint
  • soap
  • cloth
  • hair
  • string
  • wool
  • soil
  • talcum powder
  • chewing gum

Pica is more common in children than adults. A 2018 study surveyed 1,430 schoolchildren in Switzerland, finding that more than 10% of children might experience pica at some point.

It’s important to note that mouthing objects is commonplace in certain developmental stages of life, typically before the age of 2. Taking this into account, healthcare professionals don’t typically diagnose pica in children under this age.

There’re no lab tests to help determine a pica diagnosis. Your doctor’s diagnosis will rely mostly on your symptoms and medical history. To make a diagnosis, a medical professional should evaluate your eating habits.

In some cases, you can address pica and its associated cravings by simply taking vitamins that address underlying nutritional deficiencies or other concerns. In other cases, pica-associated eating habits may need medical treatment.

Doctors may diagnose pica in pregnant people if their ingestion of nonfood items poses a serious medical risk, either due to the amount or type of item they’re eating. If they ingest toxic substances, this can harm the fetus, according to research.

Every person is different. Usually, the severity of the eating habits combined with your potential medical risk will inform the doctor’s decision.

Treatments for eating disorders can differ.

To treat pica, a doctor may first try to address any health complications resulting from eating nonfood items. For example, ingesting paint can lead to lead poisoning. This health consequence would need immediate attention, and your doctor might prescribe chelation therapy.

If your doctor thinks your pica is caused by nutrient imbalances, they may prescribe vitamin or mineral supplements.

Your doctor may also feel that a psychological evaluation would be helpful. Because other mental health conditions, such as OCD or schizophrenia, can coincide or even cause pica, getting to the root of the psychological causes of pica might be the most effective treatment strategy.

If there is a co-occurring mental health condition, your doctor might feel that medication or therapy could be beneficial.

Learning about the symptoms, treatment, and risk factors of pica can help you understand the condition and find the most appropriate treatments. The options for treating pica are varied, and the approach is different for everyone.

As with other eating disorders, you don’t need to treat pica alone. You can reach out to a medical professional and use their expertise to navigate your symptoms.

If you want to learn more about pica, visit the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) for resources, an eating disorder helpline, tips for getting help, and strategies to move forward.

Remember: Though treating pica may be a process, there are options to help you develop healthier eating habits and manage life with pica.