I’m sure that most of you know someone who eats ice, clay, dry paint, etc. or perhaps you even do it yourself! These people tend to have a strong craving for such items, which can range from harmless to incredibly dangerous. It may come as a surprise to some of you that this condition also has a name – Pica.
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What is Pica?
Pica is a psychological disorder in which a person craves and consumes non-nutritional items like clay, ice, paint, sharp objects, metals, etc. The affected individual eats these items compulsively, which may lead to internal damage if the item is harmful. The consumption of ice is known as pagophagia, the consumption of clay, earth and related substances is known as geophagia, and the consumption of hair is trichophagia, etc.
Pica is diagnosed after the compulsive eating has been going on for at least a month, and cannot be attributed to any religious, social or societal factors or cultures. Simply put, there should be no verifiable reason for the consumption of the items.
What causes Pica?
Pica is a peculiar disorder that cannot be easily explained. The consumption of ice and clay have most often been linked to iron deficiencies. Certain other forms of pica can also be reflections of an iron or other mineral deficiency. However, it still isn’t clear why the person would consume such items. For instance, people who eat ice are known to have low iron levels, but ice cannot replenish their iron levels. Pica has also been observed in patients with mental disorders, such as schizophrenia.
Pica is often seen in growing children and pregnant woman. However, these are usually the less harmful versions of pica, such as the consumption of clay, ice, chalk, etc., which are indicative of deficiencies. These can go away in a few months without any medical help. Keep in mind that these are less harmful, but not harmless. This is because consuming these items can also lead to problems. For instance, if a child eats chalk or soil, they are at a risk of ingesting a large number of pathogens or germs present in the soil. However, it’s relatively less harmful than consuming paint, which may contain lead, or consuming sharp objects.
How is Pica diagnosed and treated?
There is no specific test for the diagnosis of pica. If the habit of eating such non-edible items persists for over a month without any other explanation, it could be pica. For pregnant woman, or mentally ill people, if the consumption of these items is not harming their health, it should not be considered as pica. Since pica could reflect underlying deficiencies, the affected person should be checked for iron, zinc or other mineral deficiencies.
Pica can be harmful depending on the kind of non-edible substance the person is consuming. This issue is usually treated by addressing the underlying cause. If it occurs because of a mineral deficiency, supplements can help the problem. If it occurs due to a mental disorder, the patient is treated for that disorder, which most often takes care of the pica. In cases where it has caused other complications, such as lead poisoning or infections, these also need to be treated separately. Since doctors and researchers don’t understand why a person resorts to eating non-nutritional items, they cannot directly treat or cure that part of the problem.
Funny as it sounds, however, some people just like eating a particular item for the texture or temperature, like the consumption of clay or ice. As long as this doesn’t culminate in a compulsive behavior and doesn’t cause any damage to the person, these habits are not classified as pica. Therefore, don’t start thinking there is anything wrong with you just because you occasionally like to munch on ice cubes!