Pica is an eating disorder characterized by craving and eating items that are not usually considered food. The disorder is most common in pregnant women and young children two to three years of age, though it can be observed in all ages and genders. Pica is often caused by a nutritional deficiency. However the items eaten, which vary widely, generally do not contain any of the nutrients which are lacking.
There are many items craved by pica sufferers, some more harmful than others. Some common items eaten by children with pica are gravel, insects, leaves, animal droppings, sand, paint and glue. Adults and older children who suffer from pica often crave or eat laundry detergent, soil, or clay. Other common items consumed by those with pica include rust, plaster, corn starch, coffee grounds, toothpaste, cigarette ashes and butts, ice hair, soap, and chalk. And the list is far from exhaustive. Anyone who has a continual craving for more than a month to eat an item that isnt generally considered food is likely suffering from pica.
While nutritional deficiency is believed to be the primary cause of pica, it is by no means the only possible cause. Other things that are believed to cause pica are developmental changes, brain trauma, autism-related stimming, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and parasites. It is also believed that psychological causes could be involved in the development of pica.
Its important to note here that not everyone who ever eats something that is not food is dealing with pica. It is common for children, especially young children, to attempt to explore their world through taste. Pica generally does not assert itself in children until they are 2-3 years of age. Younger children who are eating strange things are likely just exploring their world. While you should certainly remove things that may be harmful if swallowed, you neednt worry about pica unless your child is above two years of age and consistently craving or eating things other than food.
If you or a loved one is dealing with pica, it is important to seek medical (and possibly psychological) help. The main treatments for pica, especially in children, involve behavior modification techniques, which your family physician, pediatrician, or child psychologist can explain to you if you are, in fact, dealing with pica. Pica can be a serious, in some cases even a deadly problem. It is often a root cause in mercury poisoning, lead poisoning, and a host of other potentially serious problems. If you suspect you or your child may be suffering from pica, seek help immediately.