13 Minutes

Edited & medically reviewed by THE BALANCE Team
Fact checked

PICA is the insatiable need to eat non-food substances like dirt, mud, detergent, uncooked starches, paper, and charcoal for at least 1 month. PICA is defined as behavior that is both developmentally inappropriate (beyond the age of 24 months) and culturally and socially unacceptable.

PICA may appear bizarre and unusual. PICA data, on the other hand, reveal that this behavior may be seen in adult men and women, and children all over the world. PICA can be somewhat safe or highly hazardous based on the quantity and type of non-nutritive material consumed. Accidental consumption of toxic materials can have long-term developmental consequences for children, as well as cause infections, nutritional imbalances, and even intestinal blockages.

PICA affects an unknown number of people, as per the National Eating Disorders Association. It is, nevertheless, more likely to be found in developing countries.

Some research from the United States have provided insight on the prevalence of PICA:

  • PICA was seen in 4 percent of males and females in an outpatient weight loss center.
  • PICA affects 18.5 percent of all children.
  • PICA affects ten percent of children over the age of twelve.
  • PICA affects up to half of all children between 18 to 36 months.
  • PICA can be found in ten percent of mentally challenged people.
  • PICA is more common among kids with intellectual difficulties and autism than in kids who do not have these disorders.
  • According to one study, 12.3 percent of youngsters have indulged in PICA behaviors at some point in their life.
  • According to a meta-analysis of research on the occurrence of PICA during pregnancy, 27.8 percent of pregnant women admitted experiencing it.
  • PICA is a symptom of Autism that affects up to 89 percent of people with the condition.
  • PICA affects 25 percent to 33 percent of all children globally.
  • People with learning difficulties account for 10 to 15 percent of all PICA cases.

There are a variety of reasons why a person could get PICA. PICA is linked to a number of mental health issues, including:

PICA and Autism: PICA is present in 46–89 percent of autistic children who have nutritional issues.

PICA and Schizophrenia: PICA can manifest as impulsive non-food eating that is accompanied by delusions.

PICA and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): PICA is a type of compulsive eating of non-food things to reduce stress, and it has been found to be prevalent in diseases such as OCD.

PICA has also been reported to be more common in juvenile patients with sickle cell disease and pediatric dialysis patients.

PICA is frequently linked to anemia, iron deficiency, and vitamin deficits. It’s uncertain if a person’s micronutrient inadequacies lead them to seek non-food items, or if non-food materials inhibit vitamin absorption in the stomach.

When non-food compounds are consumed, they come with their own set of risks:

  • Mercury poisoning is linked to the consumption of paper.
  • Consumption of soil or clay is linked to infections, constipation, poor vitamin K levels, and lead toxicity.
  • Ice consumption has been linked to iron deficiency, dental damage, and hypersensitivity.
  • Excess starch consumption has been linked to iron deficiency and high blood sugar levels.
  • Several non-food substances can contain a variety of harmful pollutants, such as mercury, lead, fluoride, and arsenic; the effects of ingesting dangerous substances can be fatal or result in lifelong brain or body harm.

Screening for mineral or vitamin deficits and treating them is the first-line treatment for PICA.

PICA is a condition that occurs frequently in people who are iron deficient. Abnormal eating habits often fade away as deficits are addressed.

Medications could also be used to alleviate the side effects of nonfood consumption. A healthcare practitioner may prescribe the following medications:

  • Mineral and vitamin supplements are used to treat micro-nutrient deficits.
  • Medications for diarrhea or constipation induced by nonfood intake
  • Infections induced by consuming infected soil or excrement require antibiotic or antiparasitic treatment.

PICA symptoms may be alleviated if a person with a developmental impairment receives treatment for this illness. In some circumstances, the usage of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) has been found to be beneficial. PICA was resolved with using methylphenidate to treat persons who also had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to another case report.

A range of behavioral therapies is available if the behaviors are not caused by starvation or do not stop following nutritional treatment.

A thorough behavioral examination of the origin of PICA may be necessary for effective treatment. Behavioral psychologists have shown that therapies based on a full assessment are much more likely to result in a statistically significant decrease in PICA, especially in people with autism. A child with PICA and autism should be referred by their primary care physician to a board-certified psychologist or a behavior analyst with training in behavior analysis.

PICA can be treated with a variety of behavioral therapies, including:

  • If PICA is not tried, positive reinforcement can be used, like giving prizes for choosing food over nonfood objects. 
  • Teach your toddler to distinguish between inedible and edible substances.
  • If PICA is tried, aversive presenting is used, like giving a kid something bitter to eat, like lemon juice.
  • If PICA is attempted, there will be a time-out.
  • Focus, meals, or toys are presented without regard to whether or not PICA is tried.
  • After attempting PICA, perform a visual screening with the eyes covered for a short time.

If PICA is attempted, an aversive presentation is given:

  • Taste buds (for example; lemon)
  • A strong odor (for example, ammonia)
  • Feelings (for example, water mist in hands and face)

Physical restraints include:

  • Self-defense devices that prevent things from being placed in the mouth
  • Restraint for a short period of time if PICA is attempted
  • Overcorrection, culminating in self-washing, the removal of non-edible things, and chore-based penalty for attempting PICA.
  • Negative practice (holding an inedible item against the child’s mouth to prevent consumption)

Despite the fact that most studies in the literature have small samples, it is widely considered that these strategies can be extremely effective therapies for PICA.

If your child is diagnosed with PICA as part of an autistic spectrum disorder, he or she may also get applied behavior analysis (ABA). It is one of the most well-established and thoroughly investigated treatments for autism.

ABA is a fairly intensive reward-based training approach. It is founded on behaviorist theories, which hold that desirable behaviors may be taught via a reward and punishment system.

In individuals with cognitive disabilities, behavioral interventions for PICA have been proven to lower PICA severity by 80 percent.

The PICA and other eating disorder treatment programs at high-end luxury inpatient and residential rehab provide extensive, high-quality care. Multi-level holistic care is provided to juveniles and patients to assist them in overcoming their PICA eating disorder.

Benefits Of The Residential Eating Disorder Treatment Program

The premium residential PICA treatment program at Upscale luxury treatment center provides the finest degree of care as well as the strictest supervision and support. The high-end inpatient PICA and other eating disorder treatment facility provides a controlled, consistent, and stable setting for the clients to reclaim their physical and mental health. Premium mental health and behavioral specialists with 5-star resort-like amenities are available at luxury residential treatment centers customized for adults and juvenile clients. 

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Adult clients progressively get less supervision and acquire more authority as their health improves and their dedication to recovery grows. The approach stresses goal-setting and continuous recognition of progress, assisting clients in making a smooth transition away from their eating disorder.

Constant Support & Constant Care

The program is available seven days a week, with participants living on-site and nursing and support staff available 24 hours a day. Adult clients can attend group and individual therapy sessions and meet with the program’s nurses, medical director, and dietitians on a regular basis. The center provides all snacks and meals for customers, as well as outings. For juvenile members, specific programs can be arranged as well as treatment and therapies on an outpatient basis could also be provided. 

Partial Hospitalization Program

Clients can begin a life outside of treatment with the Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), often known as Day Treatment. Clients in a PHP confront daily stressors and obstacles while still receiving high-quality professional care. Clients apply what they’ve learned in treatment to their daily lives, and they get regular feedback and support to help them acquire confidence when they leave treatment.

For juvenile patients, the behavioral therapies could either be practiced in-situ or the family members preferably parents could be taught to practice the same at home.

The typical PHP schedule runs from early mornings to weekdays. The program, however, may be prolonged or abridged as needed. Clients live at the high-end treatment facility and engage in individual and group therapy.  They receive certain snacks and meals at the center during daily programming, and at night, they are given the opportunity to make meals and practice newly acquired coping skills at home. As treatment develops, programming schedules get shorter in order to foster greater freedom and more opportunity to apply newly acquired skills in a less regulated setting.

Nutritional advice

Pica patients will receive dietary counseling from a qualified dietitian who specializes in eating disorders. These include their family members, especially in the case of juvenile patients. The dietitian will teach patients or his or her family regarding nutritional deficiencies in the patient’s diet, how to fulfill their dietary demands, and how to distinguish between non-edible and edible items. To maintain medical stability, the nutritionist will closely work with the primary care doctor to check lab work.

Therapy for Families

Family therapy is intended to help the entire family understand the disorder that is affecting the person as well as the rest of the family. The family therapist will work with everyone involved to help them learn to cope with stress and acquire the coping mechanisms they’ll need to manage things in their home.

Family treatment programs offer a secure space for families to talk about their thoughts about dealing with an illness that can be difficult and worrisome for everyone involved. The family therapist will help families communicate effectively, overcome problems, and collaborate more successfully.


Psychoeducation aims to help families understand better and live with pica in their homes by offering knowledge on the condition and how to deal with it. The psychiatrist, therapist, and registered dietitian will present this to families as it relates to their part of the patient’s treatment. It is critical that both the person suffering from pica and those who live with them receive information on the disorder as well as suggestions for how to help and safeguard the person. This is also true for any co-occurring disorders that the patient may have.

Families and patients should learn more about the disease because there are various measures that can be implemented to help parents better manage the issue.

Dealing with a kid who has PICA can be difficult, but understanding the underlying issues that are unique to your kid’s situation can be a helpful method to reduce stress. There are a few tried-and-true tactics that can assist you in regaining control of things.

Here are a few examples:

Ascertain that your child eats a well-balanced diet: PICA is most commonly caused by Iron-deficiency anemia and starvation, second by pregnancy. PICA is a symptom that the body is attempting to remedy a nutrient shortage in these people. PICA symptoms can be alleviated by promoting a balanced, healthful diet.

PICA-proof your home: Take into account your child’s environment at home as well as other areas where he or she spends time. Place foods they frequently eat out of sight or keep them locked away. Clean and sweep on a regular basis.

Give multiple snacks at periodic intervals: This may be helpful because more regular snacks provide the kid with options other than nonfood items to eat.

Other strategies to improve your child’s surroundings: This is especially crucial if your child’s PICA is caused by sensory stimuli, but it can benefit anyone with PICA. Allow your youngster to participate in a range of activities that aren’t related to their PICA interests.

Treatment for PICA has a variable success rate, based on the underlying related circumstances/causes. PICA normally improves with age in children. The illness usually lasts a few months and then goes away on its own. It may last throughout adolescence or adulthood in some situations, especially when it is associated with developmental problems.

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A comprehensive medical examination can contribute to the successful treatment of underlying issues (such as dietary inadequacies), which may result in the resolution of PICA.

PICA is a condition in which some children are unable to be treated by the methods described above. This can happen when a child has a difficult underlying psychiatric or neurodevelopmental issue. You’ll almost certainly require a specialist with extensive services to children with PICA and other behavioral issues.

Whether or not there are co-occurring problems to overcome will affect the course of the illness and treatment. The measure of family engagement will have an impact on the child’s degree of success. PICA is a condition that most kids outgrow, as evidenced by the fact that the incidence of PICA in children decreases with age.

Your idle high school classmate biting his pen is certainly a foolish habit. PICA, on the other hand, can cause serious health problems if left untreated.

The intake of paint chips and paint is of special concern. Lead can be found in old paint, which can have long-term health consequences such as convulsive disorders, peripheral neuropathy, and cognitive impairments. Other major health issues also exist. Consuming metal, particularly wire and fragments of metal, can cause serious damage to your esophagus and bowels, as well as serious systemic problems caused by a high concentration of metals in your circulation.

Intake of something poisonous, or anything that turns poisonous when taken in large amounts, is also a serious possibility. Eating excrement and soil can expose you to dangerous germs, fungus, and viruses, based on what is in the dirt.

PICA, in the worst-case scenario, can induce intestinal obstructions since your body is unable to dissolve what you have eaten. Even if you eat a healthy diet, this poses a major threat to your digestive health.

Because of the nature of this eating disorder, individual incidents of PICA occasionally reach the news with startling headlines. These stories are usually about the things that people want and consume, with a focus on surprising or outrageous behavior. There is always an individual beneath the physical problems of sickness, who requires expert therapy and assistance to recover, as with all psychological disorders and/or addiction disorders.

At high-end luxury inpatient and residential PICA rehab, all eating disorders are managed with compassion, including those with a dual diagnosis of addiction and mental illness. PICA can coexist with other addictions including alcoholism, drug addiction, gaming problem, or sex addiction. There could also be a lot of emotional trauma, which is the main cause of this uncommon eating problem.

When patients with PICA are extremely emaciated, mentally ill, or physically injured, in-patient care may be required to stabilize them before they can begin residential rehabilitation. The Admittance team at premium treatment centers can help you with your therapeutic options, as well as admissions standards. Please contact us right away to discuss your problem.



The Balance RehabClinic is a leading provider of luxury addiction and mental health treatment for affluent individuals and their families, offering a blend of innovative science and holistic methods with unparalleled individualised care.


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