Pica is an eating disorder most commonly observed in children, but can occur with adults as well. Pica is typically defined as the ingestion of non-nutritive/non-food substances for a period of at least 1 month. This behavior occurs at an age for which it is developmentally inappropriate, or beyond 18 to 24 months of age. Pica may be benign, or it can have life-threatening consequences depending on what is ingested. Lead poisoning, for instance, is a serious problem, and lead levels should always be tested if the individual has ingested paint or paint covered objects. Pica is sometimes associated with malnutrition or an iron or zinc deficiency.
Children and adults with pica disorder may eat hairballs, paint, sand, dirt, animal feces, clay, cigarette butts, paper, burnt matches, wood, chalk or other substances that are not typically considered food.
Although pica is observed most frequently in children, it is the most common eating disorder in individuals with developmental disabilities. In some societies, pica is a cultural practice and is not considered to be problematic. Therefore, pica should only be considered when the behavior is inappropriate for the developmental level of the individual, is not a culturally sanctioned practice, and is not co-occurring with schizophrenia or other mental disorders.
There is no single test for pica. Treatment should first address any missing nutrients or malnutrition and test for lead poisoning or intestinal obstruction, depending on what has been ingested. Treating pica can also involve treating the behaviors with proper psychotherapy and providing family education. One form of treatment associates the pica behavior with negative consequences (mild aversion therapy). Then the person gets positive reinforcement for eating normal foods.