Table of Contents

Definition of Pica

Pica refers to a medical or psychological condition characterized by an individual’s persistent consumption of non-nutritive substances or items that lack nutritional value, such as dirt, clay, chalk, hair, paper, cloth, or other non-food materials. This behavior typically persists for at least one month and is not a culturally or socially accepted practice.

Pica can occur in various populations, including children, pregnant women, individuals with developmental disorders like autism, and those experiencing nutritional deficiencies or certain mental health conditions. The exact cause of pica isn’t always clear but can be associated with nutrient imbalances, psychological factors, cultural practices, or developmental issues.

Treatment for pica often involves addressing underlying nutritional deficiencies, providing behavioral interventions, counseling, and sometimes medication, depending on the underlying causes and associated complications.

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History of Pica

The term “pica” has its origins in Latin, referring to a magpie, a bird known for its indiscriminate eating habits. The word was initially used in the 16th century to describe abnormal cravings for substances considered non-nutritive or unusual. Over time, the concept evolved to encompass the specific medical or psychological condition characterized by these abnormal cravings.

  • The history of pica dates back centuries, with references found in ancient texts and medical literature. Throughout history, various cultures have documented instances of people consuming non-food items. In some cases, these behaviors were attributed to cultural beliefs or ritualistic practices. For instance, certain cultures practiced geophagy, the deliberate consumption of soil or earth, believing it to have medicinal or spiritual benefits.
  • During the 19th and 20th centuries, medical understanding of pica expanded. Physicians and researchers began recognizing pica as a distinct disorder rather than just an odd behavior. They associated it with various health conditions, such as iron deficiency anemia or other nutritional deficiencies.
  • Pica gained recognition as a psychological disorder categorized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. It was identified as a condition characterized by persistent consumption of non-nutritive substances for a duration of at least one month, not explained by developmental stage, cultural practices, or a part of another mental disorder.
  • Research continues to explore the underlying causes of pica, including nutritional deficiencies, cultural influences, mental health factors, and developmental issues. Treatment approaches have evolved to involve a combination of addressing nutritional imbalances, behavioral interventions, psychotherapy, and, in some cases, medication.

Understanding of pica as a complex disorder has grown, leading to more comprehensive approaches to diagnosis, treatment, and support for individuals exhibiting these behaviors.

DSM-5 Criteria of Pica

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), pica is classified as a feeding and eating disorder. The DSM-5 outlines specific criteria for diagnosing pica. To meet the criteria for a diagnosis of pica, the following conditions must be met:

Persistent eating of non-nutritive, non-food substances over a period of at least one month.

The eating behavior is considered inappropriate for the individual’s developmental level.

The eating behavior is not part of a culturally supported or socially normative practice.

If the eating behavior occurs in the context of another mental disorder (such as autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability, or schizophrenia), it is severe enough to warrant independent clinical attention.

The eating behavior is not better explained by a lack of food availability or an observed culturally sanctioned practice.

It’s crucial to note that for a diagnosis of pica to be made, the behavior must not be better explained by other mental disorders or cultural practices. The consumption of non-nutritive substances should persist for a significant duration and significantly deviate from what is considered developmentally appropriate for the individual.

A proper diagnosis requires a comprehensive evaluation by a qualified mental health professional or healthcare provider to assess the symptoms, medical history, and potential underlying causes to determine if the criteria for pica are met. Treatment typically involves addressing any underlying nutritional deficiencies, behavioral interventions, counseling, and management of associated complications.

Etiology of Pica

The exact cause of pica is not always straightforward and can involve a combination of various factors, including physiological, psychological, cultural, and environmental influences. Some potential contributing factors to the development of pica include:

Nutritional deficiencies:

Pica is often associated with deficiencies in certain nutrients, such as iron, zinc, or other minerals and vitamins. Individuals experiencing these deficiencies might develop cravings for non-nutritive substances as their body seeks to fulfill these nutritional needs.

Developmental or mental health conditions:

Pica can co-occur with developmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder or intellectual disabilities. Mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, or certain psychiatric disorders may also be linked to pica.


Pregnant women might experience pica cravings, possibly due to hormonal changes or nutritional deficiencies during pregnancy. However, this behavior should still be evaluated by healthcare professionals to ensure the safety of both the mother and the baby.

Cultural or social factors:

Some cultures have practices involving the consumption of non-food substances (such as clay, dirt, or chalk) due to traditional beliefs, medicinal purposes, or social norms. This cultural influence might contribute to the development or normalization of pica behaviors.

Sensory issues or oral exploration:

In some cases, individuals with sensory processing issues or those who engage in oral exploration due to developmental stages might exhibit pica-like behaviors.

Psychological factors:

Stress, trauma, or emotional distress could potentially trigger or exacerbate pica behaviors in some individuals.

Understanding the specific cause or combination of factors contributing to pica in an individual can be complex. Diagnosis and treatment typically involve a comprehensive assessment by healthcare professionals, including medical evaluations to identify any underlying medical conditions or nutritional deficiencies. Treatment approaches often focus on addressing the underlying causes, providing behavioral interventions, nutritional counseling, and, if necessary, psychotherapy or medication to manage associated symptoms or conditions.

Theories related to Pica

Several theories attempt to explain the occurrence of pica, though the precise cause remains multifaceted and may involve a combination of factors. Some of the prominent theories include:

Nutritional Deficiency:

This theory suggests that pica behaviors arise as a result of specific nutritional deficiencies, such as iron, zinc, or other minerals and vitamins. The body’s cravings for non-nutritive substances may stem from an attempt to address these deficiencies.

Evolutionary/Adaptive Theory:

Some researchers propose that pica behaviors could have evolutionary roots, possibly serving as a survival mechanism in certain situations. For example, in times of food scarcity or famine, the consumption of non-food items might provide some nutrients or substances that are otherwise lacking in the diet.

Sensory or Oral Fixation Theory:

According to this theory, individuals with sensory processing issues or oral fixation tendencies might engage in pica behaviors as a form of sensory stimulation or exploration. The act of consuming non-food items may provide a sensory experience or relieve anxiety.

Psychological or Emotional Causes:

Psychological factors such as stress, trauma, or emotional distress have been linked to pica in some cases. Individuals may use pica as a coping mechanism or to alleviate emotional discomfort.

Cultural and Social Influences:

Cultural practices or beliefs may contribute to the development and normalization of pica behaviors in certain communities. Practices like geophagy (eating earth or soil) in some cultures can influence the acceptance and prevalence of pica-like behaviors.

Learning and Environmental Factors:

Some individuals may learn pica behaviors through observation or exposure in their environment, especially during childhood. Reinforcement or attention received for engaging in these behaviors might further perpetuate the behavior.

It’s important to note that these theories are not mutually exclusive, and pica’s causative factors are likely multifactorial, involving a combination of biological, psychological, environmental, and cultural influences. The specific reasons behind an individual’s engagement in pica behaviors can vary widely, and a comprehensive evaluation by healthcare professionals is crucial to understand and address the underlying causes effectively.

Risk factors of Pica

Several risk factors have been identified that may increase the likelihood of developing pica. These factors can vary among individuals and contribute to the manifestation of pica behaviors. Some of the key risk factors include:

Nutritional Deficiencies:

Deficiencies in certain nutrients, such as iron, zinc, or other minerals and vitamins, can increase the risk of pica. The body’s attempt to address these deficiencies might lead to cravings for non-food substances.

Developmental Disorders:

Individuals with developmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder or intellectual disabilities, have a higher prevalence of pica behaviors compared to the general population. These conditions may contribute to the development or persistence of pica.

Mental Health Conditions:

Certain mental health disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, or other psychiatric conditions, can be associated with pica. Psychological distress or abnormalities in behavior may influence the onset or continuation of pica behaviors.


Pregnant women might experience pica cravings, possibly due to hormonal changes or nutritional deficiencies during pregnancy. However, pica during pregnancy requires evaluation by healthcare professionals to ensure the safety of both the mother and the baby.

Cultural Influences:

Cultural practices or beliefs that involve the consumption of non-food items (such as clay, dirt, or chalk) can increase the risk of developing pica behaviors, particularly in communities where such practices are prevalent and accepted.

Sensory Issues:

Individuals with sensory processing issues or oral exploration tendencies may be more prone to engaging in pica-like behaviors. Sensory-seeking behavior or exploration through oral means might contribute to the consumption of non-nutritive substances.

Environmental Factors:

Exposure to environments where non-food items are easily accessible or where pica behaviors are observed or reinforced can increase the risk. Lack of supervision, access to non-food items, or familial behavior patterns might contribute to the development of pica.

Psychological or Emotional Stress:

Stress, trauma, or emotional distress can sometimes trigger or exacerbate pica behaviors in certain individuals. Pica may serve as a coping mechanism for managing emotional discomfort.

Understanding these risk factors can aid healthcare professionals in assessing and addressing pica behaviors. Early identification and intervention are crucial in managing and treating pica effectively, particularly by addressing any underlying medical or psychological factors contributing to the condition.

Treatment for Pica

Treatment for pica typically involves a multidisciplinary approach tailored to the individual’s specific needs and circumstances. The treatment aims to address underlying causes, manage complications, and modify behaviors. Here are some common approaches used in treating pica:

Medical Evaluation:

A comprehensive medical assessment is essential to identify and address any underlying medical conditions, nutritional deficiencies, or complications resulting from the ingestion of non-food substances.

Nutritional Interventions:

Correcting nutritional deficiencies is crucial. Healthcare providers may recommend dietary changes, supplements, or nutritional counseling to address deficiencies contributing to pica behaviors.

Behavioral Interventions:

Behavioral therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), applied behavior analysis (ABA), or habit reversal training, may help in modifying the behavior associated with pica. These interventions aim to replace the habit of consuming non-food items with healthier behaviors.

Environmental Modification:

Restricting access to non-food items or making them less available can be helpful. This involves creating a safe environment by removing or securing substances that pose a risk for ingestion.

Psychotherapy or Counseling:

Psychotherapy or counseling sessions, either individually or in a group setting, may be beneficial, especially in addressing underlying psychological issues, stress, trauma, or emotional distress contributing to pica.


In some cases, medication might be prescribed to manage associated symptoms or underlying mental health conditions, such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or other psychiatric disorders contributing to pica.

Family or Caregiver Education and Support:

Educating family members or caregivers about pica, its risks, and strategies for managing the condition is crucial for creating a supportive environment and ensuring consistency in interventions.

Monitoring and Follow-Up:

Regular monitoring by healthcare professionals is essential to track progress, manage any relapses, and adjust the treatment plan as needed. Follow-up appointments allow for ongoing support and adjustments to the treatment approach.

The treatment plan for pica is individualized, considering factors such as the individual’s age, underlying medical or psychological conditions, severity of symptoms, and potential complications. Collaboration among healthcare providers, including physicians, psychologists, dietitians, and behavioral therapists, is often necessary to provide comprehensive care for individuals with pica.

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Therapies for Pica

Several therapies can be effective in addressing pica behaviors. These therapies aim to modify behaviors, address underlying causes, and provide support to individuals exhibiting pica. Some of the common therapies used for treating pica include:

Behavioral Therapy:

Behavioral interventions, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA), are commonly used to modify behaviors associated with pica. This therapy focuses on identifying triggers, teaching alternative behaviors, and reinforcing positive behaviors while gradually reducing the urge to consume non-food items.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT):

CBT can be beneficial in addressing the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors related to pica. It helps individuals recognize and challenge the thoughts and impulses driving the behavior and develop coping strategies to manage cravings and urges.

Habit Reversal Training:

This behavioral therapy involves identifying the triggers that lead to pica behaviors and teaching the individual alternative responses to replace the behavior. It aims to interrupt the habit loop and substitute it with healthier behaviors.

Sensory Integration Therapy:

For individuals with sensory issues contributing to pica behaviors, sensory integration therapy can help regulate sensory input and responses. This therapy aims to improve sensory processing and reduce sensory-seeking behaviors.

Family-Based Therapy:

Involving family members or caregivers in therapy sessions can be crucial for creating a supportive environment, implementing behavioral strategies at home, and providing consistency in interventions.

Psychoeducation and Counseling:

Educating individuals and their families about pica, its potential risks, and strategies for managing the condition can be helpful. Counseling sessions provide emotional support and address underlying psychological factors contributing to pica.

It’s important to note that the effectiveness of therapies may vary depending on individual needs, underlying causes, and the severity of pica behaviors. A comprehensive assessment by healthcare professionals is essential to determine the most suitable therapeutic approach or combination of therapies for each individual. Tailoring the treatment to address specific factors contributing to pica is crucial for successful management and improvement of symptoms.

Preventions of Pica

Preventing pica involves various strategies aimed at reducing the risk of developing or exacerbating the behavior. While not all cases of pica are preventable, especially in instances where there are underlying medical or psychological conditions, implementing certain measures can help minimize the risk. Here are some preventive strategies:

Early Intervention and Screening:

Early identification of risk factors or behaviors associated with pica is crucial. Healthcare providers should conduct screenings, especially for individuals with developmental disorders, mental health conditions, or those at higher risk due to nutritional deficiencies.

Nutritional Education and Support:

Promoting proper nutrition and providing education about balanced diets can help prevent nutritional deficiencies that may contribute to pica. Encouraging healthy eating habits and providing access to nutritious foods is essential.

Supervision and Environmental Modification:

Providing a safe and supervised environment, especially for individuals at risk, helps limit access to non-food items. Securely storing or removing substances that may be ingested and monitoring the individual can prevent exposure to non-nutritive items.

Behavioral Interventions:

Teaching and reinforcing appropriate behaviors, including alternative activities to distract from pica urges, can be helpful. Positive reinforcement for healthy behaviors and discouraging or redirecting the individual from consuming non-food items are key components.

Addressing Underlying Causes:

Identifying and addressing underlying medical conditions, developmental disorders, or mental health issues that may contribute to pica is essential. Treating these conditions early can reduce the likelihood of developing or worsening pica behaviors.

Psychoeducation and Family Support:

Providing information about pica, its risks, and strategies for managing the behavior can be beneficial for families and caregivers. Educating them about the importance of creating a safe environment and implementing appropriate interventions is crucial.

Regular Monitoring and Follow-Up:

Periodic evaluations by healthcare professionals can help monitor changes in behavior and promptly address any emerging concerns. Follow-up appointments allow for ongoing support and adjustments to preventive measures.

While these preventive measures can be helpful, it’s important to note that each individual’s situation is unique. For individuals already exhibiting pica behaviors, treatment and management strategies, as discussed earlier, play a critical role in addressing and reducing the impact of the condition. Collaboration with healthcare professionals can guide preventive efforts tailored to the individual’s needs and circumstances

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