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Pica is an eating disorder, appetite for non-nutritive substances (e.g., coal, soil, feces, chalk, paper etc.) or an abnormal appetite for some things that may be considered foods, such as food ingredients (e.g., flour, raw potato, starch). In order for these actions to be considered pica, they must persist for more than one month, at an age where eating such objects is considered developmentally inappropriate. The condition’s name comes from the Latin word for the magpie, a bird which is reputed to eat almost anything. Pica is seen in all ages, particularly in pregnant women and small children, especially among children who are developmentally disabled, where it is the most common eating disorder.
Pica in children, while common, can be dangerous. Children eating painted plaster containing lead may suffer brain damage from lead poisoning. There is a similar risk from eating dirt near roads that existed prior to the phaseout of tetra-ethyl lead in gasoline or prior to the cessation of the use of contaminated oil (either used, or containing toxic PCBs or dioxin) to settle dust. In addition to poisoning, there is also a much greater risk of gastro-intestinal obstruction or tearing in the stomach. This is also true in animals. Another risk of dirt eating is the possible ingestion of animal feces and the accompanying parasites.
The puzzling phenomenon of pica has been recognized and described since ancient times. Pica has been observed in ethnic groups worldwide, in both primitive and modernized cultures, in both sexes, and in all age groups. The word pica comes from the Latin name for magpie, a bird known for its unusual and indiscriminate eating habits. In addition to humans, pica has been observed in other animals, including the chimpanzee.
Pica in humans has many different subgroups, defined by the substance that is ingested. Some of the most commonly described types of pica are eating earth, soil or clay (geophagia), ice (pagophagia) and starch (amylophagia). However, pica involving dozens of other substances, including cigarette butts and ashes, hair, paint chips, and paper have also been reported.
The most common Types are:
The compulsive eating of purified starch, typically cornstarch or laundry starch.
The compulsive eating of earthy substances, including sand, soil, and clay.
The compulsive eating of ice.
In one unusual case, the patient ingested transdermal patches of fentanyl, an opioid medication given for severe pain. Eating the skin patch increased the patient’s dose of the drug by a factor of 10.
Although pica can occur in individuals of any background, a higher incidence of pica is associated with:
*developmental delay and mental retardation
*psychiatric disease and autism
*poor nutrition or low blood levels of iron and other minerals
*certain cultural or religious traditions
Causes & Symptoms:
The scant research that has been done on the root causes of pica suggests that the majority of those afflicted tend to suffer some biochemical deficiency and more often iron deficiency. The association between pica and iron deficiency anemia is so strong, that most patients with iron deficiency will admit to some form of pica. Often the substance eaten by those with the disorder does not contain the mineral of deficiency. If a mineral deficiency is not identified as the cause of pica, it often leads to a diagnosis as a mental disorder.
Pica may also be a symptom of iron deficiency anemia secondary to hookworm infection. Symptoms may also include a pinkish hue to the skin, particularly around the mouth.
Unlike in humans, in dogs or cats, pica may be a sign of immune-mediated hemolytic anemia, especially when it involves eating substances such as tile grout, concrete dust, and sand. Dogs exhibiting this form of pica should be tested for anemia with a CBC or at least hematocrit levels.
Evidence suggests that there may be several causes of pica. One widely held theory points to iron deficiency as a major cause of pica. Several reports have described pica in individuals with documented iron deficiency, although there has been uncertainty as to whether the iron deficiency was a cause of pica or a result of it. Because some substances, such as clay, are believed to block the absorption of iron into the bloodstream, it was thought that low blood levels of iron could be the direct result of pica. However, some studies have shown that pica cravings in individuals with iron deficiency stop once iron supplements are given to correct the deficiency. Another study looked specifically at the rate of iron absorption during pica conditions and normal dietary behavior, and showed that the iron absorption was not decreased by pica. In addition, low blood levels of iron commonly occur in pregnant women and those with poor nutrition, two populations at higher risk for pica. Such findings offer strong support of iron deficiency as a cause, rather than result, of pica.
Other reports suggest that pica may have a psychological basis and may even fall into the spectrum of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Pica has a higher incidence in populations with an underlying diagnosis involving mental functioning. These diagnoses include psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia, developmental disorders including autism, and conditions with mental retardation. These conditions are not characterized by iron deficiency, which supports a psychological component in the cause of pica.
Cultural and religious traditions may also play a role in pica behavior. In some cultures, nonfood substances are believed to have positive health or spiritual effects. Among some African Americans in the south, ingesting a particular kind of white clay is believed to promote health and reduce morning sickness during pregnancy. Other cultures practice pica out of belief that eating a particular substance may promote fertility or bring good luck.
The hallmark feature of pica, consistently consuming nonfood substances, often does not present publicly. People may be embarrassed to admit to these unusual eating habits, and may hide it from their family and physician. In other cases, an individual may not report the pica to a physician simply because of a lack of knowledge of pica’s potential medical significance.
Because the eating behaviors of pica are not usually detected or reported, it is the complications of the behavior that bring it to attention. Complications vary, depending on the type of pica. Geophagia has potential side effects that most commonly affect the intestine and bowel. Complications can include constipation, cramping, pain, obstruction caused by formation of an indigestible mass, perforation from sharp objects like rocks or gravel, and contamination and infection from soil-dwelling parasites.
Amylophagia usually involves the consumption of cornstarch and, less frequently, laundry starch. The high caloric content of starch can cause excessive weight gain, while at the same time leading to malnutrition, as starch contributes “empty” calories lacking vitamins and minerals. Amylophagia during pregnancy can mimic gestational diabetes in its presentation and even in its potential harmful effects on the fetus.
Pica involving the ingestion of substances such as lead-based paint or paper containing mercury can cause symptoms of toxic poisoning. Compulsive consumption of even a seemingly harmless substance like ice (pagophagia) can have negative side effects, including decreased absorption of nutrients by the gut.
In order for the diagnosis of pica to be made, there must be a history of persistent consumption of a nonfood substance continuing for a minimum period of one month. Infants and toddlers are typically excluded from this diagnosis since mouthing objects is a normal developmental behavior at that age. Individuals with mental retardation who function at or below an approximate cognitive level of 18 months may also be exempt form this diagnosis.
Pica is most often diagnosed when a report of such behaviors can be provided by the patient or documented by another individual. In other cases, pica is diagnosed after studies have been performed to assess the presenting symptoms. For example, imaging studies ordered to assess severe gastrointestinal complaints may reveal intestinal blockage with an opaque substance; such a finding is suggestive of pica. Biopsy of intestinal contents can also reveal findings, such as parasitic infection, consistent with pica. Pica may also be suspected if abnormal levels of certain minerals or chemicals are detected in the blood.
Pica in pregnant women is sometimes diagnosed after childbirth because of a health problem in the newborn caused by the substance(s) ingested by the mother. In one instance reported in Chicago, a newborn girl was treated for lead poisoning caused by her mother’s eating fragments of lead-glazed pottery during pregnancy.
Treatment emphasizes psychosocial, environmental, and family guidance approaches. Treatment options include: discrimination training between edible and nonedible items, self-protection devices that prohibit placement of objects in the mouth, sensory reinforcement involving screening (covering eyes briefly), contingent aversive oral taste (lemon), contingent aversive smell sensation (ammonia), contingent aversive physical sensation (water mist), brief physical restraint, and overcorrection (correct the environment, or practice appropriate or alternative responses).
This involves associating negative consequences with eating non-food items and good consequences with normal behavior. Medications may be helpful in reducing the abnormal eating behavior if pica occurs in the course of a developmental disorder, such as mental retardation or pervasive developmental disorder. These conditions may be associated with severe behavioral disturbances, including pica. These medications enhance dopaminergic functioning, which is believed to be associated with the occurrence of pica.
Medical complications and health threats, including high lead levels, bowel perforation or intestinal obstruction, will require additional medical management, beyond addressing the underlying issue of pica.
Because most cases of pica do not have an obvious medical cause, treatment with counseling, education, and nutritional management is often more successful and more appropriate than treatment with medication. Some therapists specializing in eating disorders may have expertise in treating pica.
The prognosis for individuals with pica varies greatly, according to the type and amount of substance ingested, the extent of presenting side effects, and the success of treatment. Many of the side effects and complications of pica can be reversed once the behavior is stopped, while other complications, including infection and bowel perforation, pose significant health threats and if not successfully treated may result in death.
When seen in children, pica behavior tends to lessen with age. However, individuals with a history of pica are more likely to experience it again. Counseling and nutritional education can reduce the risk of recurrence.
There are no known methods of preventing pica. However, once pica is known or suspected, measures can be taken to reduce further ingestion of nonfood substances. Removing the particular substance from readily accessible areas can be helpful. Close observation of the individual with pica may limit inappropriate eating behaviors.
Disclaimer: This information is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advise or help. It is always best to consult with a Physician about serious health concerns. This information is in no way intended to diagnose or prescribe remedies.This is purely for educational purpose