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Pica Eating Disorder: All you need to Know
“Don’t eat that!”
We have all had a parent or an elder say this to us right? This could be when we were chewing toys or consuming dirt. We eventually grew out of this habit, at least I hope we did. But, what if what you ate wasn’t under your control? Moreover, what if you compulsively ate non-food items? Sounds scary right?
This is exactly what people facing Pica disorder go through.
What is Pica Eating Disorder?
Pica is an eating disorder where a person compulsively consumes one or more non-edible items. This could be harmless stuff like ice or it could also include incredibly harmful things like paint flakes or small pieces of metal.
This disorder is usually observed in children or women in pregnancy though for a short period. Pica disorder is also observed in individuals with intellectual impairments, where it is more dangerous and long-lasting.
If you or a loved one is compulsively consuming non-food items, consulting a professional could help avoid serious complications.
Who does Pica affect?
Although the condition can happen to anyone at any age, it tends to specifically affect three main groups. These include-
- Children under the age of 6
- People who are pregnant
- People with specific mental health conditions (schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disabilities, etc)
How common is Pica?
Most people facing this disorder are embarrassed to report the symptoms. This is one of the prominent reasons why cases often go undiagnosed and untreated. It is also important to keep in mind that one of the groups vulnerable to this condition is infants and young children. Biting toys or putting non-food items in their mouth is a normal stage of development. This form of pica weans off as the child reaches the next developmental stage. Hence experts are not entirely sure how common the condition is.
How will this Condition Affect a Healthy Body?
Being unable to control or resist the urge of eating non-food items can have a wide range of consequences. Consuming toxic or dangerous items can damage your teeth, digestive tract, and other organs.
For pregnant people, eating paint chips and other toxic substances can increase the child’s risk for complications like learning disabilities or brain damage. Further, consuming items like soil, dirt, clay, or feces can increase the chances of parasitic infections, lead poisoning, and other illnesses.
What are the Mental Health Impacts of Pica?
The nature of this condition has several mental health implications as well. People who constantly engage in such behavior feel embarrassed or ashamed. This is why they resist treatment or isolate themselves from their loved ones.
What are the Signs & Symptoms of Pica?
Pica symptoms are mainly concentrated in the consumption of non-food substances for more than one month. These non-food items could include:
- The unused remainder of a cigarette
- Cigarette ashes
There are multiple other types of items that a person might consume.
What causes Pica?
A singular cause of Pica disorder has not yet been discovered. Multiple factors play into this. An imbalance in minerals like zinc, iron, and other minerals may cause the incidence of the disorder. In pregnant women, for example, a deficiency of iron (anemia) may cause the occurrence of Pica.
Some mental health disorders like OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) or Schizophrenia may also cause Pica, where people develop this as a coping mechanism. As mentioned before, an intellectual impairment may also be among pica causes.
How Pica is Diagnosed and Evaluated
Pica diagnosis can only be performed by a medical or mental health professional. While there is no single test that can diagnose Pica, the diagnosis is based on the interaction between the individual and the professional.
You must remain transparent and truthful about everything you have consumed so that the doctor can make an accurate diagnosis. It has been observed that out of embarrassment or fear, individuals sometimes don’t fully reveal the types or the quantities of the substance they ate.
The professional may conduct some blood tests to determine the levels of zinc or iron as lower levels could indicate a nutrient deficiency, characteristic of this disorder. gauge the level of nutrients to see if a nutrient imbalance is causing the disorder. Finally, imaging and diagnostic tests can also be administered as this will determine internal damage They may also refer you to a mental health professional to see if a mental health disorder is causing the issue.
What are the treatments available for Pica?
The disorder may disappear on its own in a few months for most kids and pregnant people. It has been seen that addressing a nutrient imbalance with a multivitamin or a supplement can go a long way in managing this condition. For example, pregnant women often have anemia, which may cause Pica. Addressing anemia can help the woman overcome the disorder. For individuals with intellectual impairment, pica treatment is limited to constant management and consulting with a medical professional.
If the root cause of Pica is a mental health disorder like OCD or schizophrenia, the professional may suggest behavioral therapy, mild aversive therapy, and differential reinforcement manage the triggers and compulsions.
What medications are used to treat Pica?
There are only a limited number of medications that can effectively treat pica. Antipsychotic medications can be prescribed by the psychiatrist, however, such medications are accompanied by different side effects. Further, chelation medications can also be used to treat pica. These medications are specially used to treat lead poisoning caused by the consumption of paint chips. The drug binds with lead allowing the body to eliminate it in the form of urine.
Can Pica be Cured?
Early diagnosis and intervention can go a long way in both reversing the effects of pica and curing it. For pregnant people and children below the age of 6, the condition gradually resolves itself. For people with nutrient deficiencies, supplements can help curb the need to consume non-food items. Finally, behavioral therapy and medications can help individuals with mental health disorders that lead to pica.
Living and Coping with the Disorder
Reaching out to a professional and seeking the help you need may not be the easiest step to take. However, it is the most important step to coping and recovery. With early diagnosis and intervention, you can learn to cope with and overcome the symptoms of this condition.
How to take care of yourself?
While reaching out to an expert is key, here are some other important practices to keep in mind as you cope with pica.
- Be honest with your healthcare provider
- Seek treatment consistently
- Try to take away triggers associated with pica
When to seek Help?
With comprehensive interventions and effective treatment, you can equip yourself with alternative coping mechanisms and make a complete recovery in a short span. Hence we recommend reaching out to an expert at the earliest.
Cadabams Hospitals offers the best professionals to treat disorders like Pica and more. We combine care, empathy, and expertise to create a unique recovery experience that is tailor-made to meet your requirements.
What is the main cause of pica?
According to our experts, a few prominent causes of pica include-
- Stress or anxiety
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Mental health conditions (OCD, schizophrenia, intellectual disabilities)
- Childhood trauma
When should I go to the hospital?
If you experience any dangerous consequences such as roundworm infection, irregular heart rhythms, and more seeking help at the earliest is the best course of action. With early diagnosis and intervention, you can identify triggers, and causes, and equip yourself with alternative coping strategies to overcome pica.
How long does this condition last?
Pica is considered to be a chronic condition. People who overcome pica do so with treatment or on their own. Regardless of which they are still considered to be in remission.
What is the outlook for Pica?
For pregnant people and children, pica gradually goes away. However, for those who persistently engage in such behavior and consume dangerous substances, seeking intervention is crucial to a smooth recovery.
What complications or side effects can arise from the treatment?
There are very few side effects of treatment. However, the potential side effects depend on the type of medications prescribed by the psychiatrist.
Can pica cause weight gain?
Since pica involves the consumption of non-nutritive substances, it is more likely to lead to weight loss as compared to weight gain.