Pica in Children: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

5 min read

Written by Gayathri Lakshminarayanan

Gayathri Lakshminarayanan

Is your child more fond of papers and dirt? Do you find them chewing these non-edible items more often? Then, it’s not just a phase of their childhood but is a severe eating disorder called pica. Pica in children is most often found in kids who are less than two years old. But, if you find the same disorder for more than a month, then it is time for you to book an appointment with the doctor. Let’s get into more insights about the disease and how it can be diagnosed and treated.

kid eating sand -PICA

What is Pica?

Pica in children is a medical condition where young ones are tempted to chew and taste non-edible items. Some children may eat paper, mud, dirt, paint, chalk, hair, and many more. When kids start to crawl, they tend to put everything they see into their mouths. So, when your kid puts something other than food in his mouth, it does not necessarily mean he might have pica. Pica is generally diagnosed in toddlers between 18 to 24 months.

So, as children grow, the tendency to taste non-edible items should change. If a child shows continuous signs of eating non-edible things for more than a month, the chances of having a Pica are higher.

Sometimes pica may lead to problems in the digestive systems and developmental delays. It may also be an early sign of Autism.

As parents, we have to be extra cautious about the signs and symptoms of pica.

What are the Symptoms of Pica in Children?

The primary pica in children symptom is repetitive consumption of non-food items for more than a month. However, there are more symptoms that you can look out for in your child:

  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Broken or fractured teeth because of chewing on non-food items
  • Fatigue
  • Behavioral Problems
  • Blood in stool

girl having stomach pain

What are the Causes of Pica?

But what causes pica in children? The answer: the major causes of pica are not known. However, based on the history of cases, the following are considered as some of the primary causes of pica.

  • Anemia
  • Iron or Zinc deficiency
  • OCD or Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Developmental or Intellectual Disability
  • Malnourishment
  • To seek attention from parents
  • Brain Injury

What are the Further Complications Associated with Pica?

If left untreated for a long time, Pica in children can lead to further complications like:

  • Lead poisoning, which may further lead to hematologic, renal, cardiovascular, endocrine, and neurological issues
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Infections from eating dirt or feces
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Chipped or broken teeth

How is Pica in Children Diagnosed?

There is no standard method to diagnose pica in children. The doctor might suggest several tests and evaluations identify based on the medical history and other factors. As a parent, you need to be straightforward and honest about your kid’s eating habits. This will help the doctor in proper diagnosis.

Before starting the pica diagnosis, the doctor might check for any existence of any other disorder. Example – Intellectual and Developmental disabilities and Obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Blood Tests:

The blood tests can reveal if your child is anemic or has lower zinc or iron levels. This is the most common diagnosis.

Stool Samples:

If your child suffers from digestive problems or intestinal bleeding, the doctor might suggest testing the stool samples to check the damage caused.

X-Ray or Other Imaging Techniques:

If your child has swallowed a non-food item, the doctor might suggest an x-ray or other imaging techniques of the intestines to evaluate the intestinal blockages. The doctor may also identify the potential toxicity of any consumed substances.
doctor examining girl in stomach for PICA

How is Pica in Children Treated?

Like in diagnosis, even the treatment has no direct approach, but to figure out and treat the main cause.

  • The doctor will start treating the effects of pica such as digestive problems, intestinal blockages, stomach upset, constipation, or any illness associated with pica syndrome.
  • If the kid lacks adequate iron or zinc nutrients, the doctor might suggest additional supplements to support the pica disorder.
  • The doctor might also do a psychological evaluation to check if your kid has OCD – Obsessive-Compulsive disorder. Based on the assessment, the doctor might prescribe medications or therapy sessions to overcome the medical condition.
  • The doctor might also check the home environment in which the child grows and suggest closely monitoring the eating habits.
  • If a child with an intellectual disability has pica, the doctor might suggest medications to check the behavioral problems. In the long run, this may reduce the intensity of pica eating disorder.

Pica in children is easily cured in some instances. But, some others may require advance medical procedures and professionals to interfere. The lack of knowledge about pica is a significant reason behind adverse effects. We have discussed all the information about pica in detail. If you think your kid might have pica, what are you waiting for? Are you booking an appointment? Well, it’s better to intervene early in your child’s behavior to provide them a happy and safe childhood.
kid eating sand -PICA

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is Pica Disease?

It is a medical condition where kids have an eating disorder. They tend to eat non-food items for a long time.

2. What are the Risks associated with Pica?

Pica may lead to choking, intestinal blockages, and poisoning. It also affects the kid psychologically. A regular therapy session with a psychiatrist will help the kid get over the effect of such a situation.

3. How can we Prevent Kids from Pica?

Medically, we can’t prevent kids from pica. We can identify pica very early with the following strategies.

  • Maintain a balanced nutritious diet for the kids and keep an eye on their eating habits
  • Proper communication with the kid as to no to eat the non-food items.
  • A check-up with the doctor at regular intervals.
  • If there are mental health issues, take up adequate treatment. Neglecting could create unnecessary complications.

But, with early identification and intervention on food habits, we can cure pica quickly before it creates more complications.

4. When to go to a Doctor?

If your kid persistently chews non-edible items for more than a month, it is an alert reminder to get an appointment with the doctor

5. What is the Outlook of People with Pica?

Pica develops in kids and may last for few months. But, in certain instances, pica may not completely vanish. It is very challenging to fight pica in kids who are intellectually and developmentally disabled.

Gayathri Lakshminarayanan,CA, B.Com

Gayathri’s passion for writing had its foundation at the very early stages of her life when she was on her college editorial board and also won several awards for writing events and book review competitions. She combines her corporate experience with her writing skills and her experience as a homemaker makes her an empathetic contributor in the parenting domain . Her shift from full-time accounting professional to a homemaker gave her career a new direction.Read more.

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