Pica is a mental health condition where a person compulsively swallows non-food items. It’s especially common in children and with certain conditions. While it’s often harmless, swallowing certain items can make pica very hazardous. Fortunately, it’s often treatable with therapy and modification to lifestyle and circumstances.
Pica is an eating disorder where a person compulsively eats things that aren’t food and don’t have any nutritional value or purpose. Depending on when and why a person does this, pica can be normal, expected and harmless. However, it can cause major problems if a person with this condition eats something toxic or dangerous.
Pronounced “PIKE-ah,” pica gets its name from a bird species, the Eurasian magpie (the formal Latin name for that species is Pica pica). This bird has a reputation for eating unusual objects.
Pica can happen to anyone at any age but tends to happen in three specific groups of people:
Pica is a relatively common condition, but experts aren’t sure exactly how common it is. That’s partly because research studies often don’t use the same definition for this condition.
It’s also common for healthcare providers to miss the condition entirely. This can happen when people don’t tell their doctor about it or don’t report signs of it in their children.
Yet another reason is that infants and young children often put things in their mouths, which is part of their normal development. This kind of pica usually goes away on its own very quickly.
Pica is a condition where a person compulsively eats things that aren’t food and don’t have any nutritional value. Because it’s compulsive, people with this condition have a very hard time controlling the urge on their own.
Pica can have a wide range of effects depending on what non-food item(s) a person eats. For people who eat things like ice — a common behavior for someone who is pregnant — pica is harmless. For others, it can lead to eating dangerous or toxic items.
Depending on what you eat, pica can damage your teeth. It can also lead to dangerous problems even when you eat things that aren’t toxic. An example is when people eat hair (known as trichophagia), which can get stuck in their digestive tract, causing blockages, tearing or other damage.
Parasites that live in the soil can also infect people who eat dirt or clay (geophagia). People can also contract illnesses from eating feces (poop), especially pet feces that might contain parasites or other germs.
People with pica often feel embarrassed or ashamed about this condition. Because of this, people with this condition often don’t seek treatment or are afraid to open up about it to their healthcare provider.
The sole symptom of pica is compulsively eating things that aren’t food or have no nutritional value or benefit. Most people with this condition prefer a single type of non-food item they eat.
However, pica can cause other conditions or issues, which have their own sets of symptoms. Other conditions that can happen because of pica include:
People with pica often eat the following:
Experts don’t know exactly why pica happens. However, researchers know certain factors increase the risk of developing it.
Diagnosing pica requires four criteria (with the mentioned exceptions explained after the list):
While pica is an extremely common behavior for several reasons, many of those also disqualify diagnosing it. These include:
Most of the tests for pica are looking for problems that happen because of this condition. These can include a variety of lab, diagnostic and imaging tests, such as:
Pica in people who are pregnant usually goes away on its own. Children also usually grow out of pica, especially as someone teaches them the difference between edible and non-edible items and objects. For children with intellectual disabilities (or other problems that interfere with learning), removing problematic items and supervision are both very important.
The main form of treatment for pica is therapy, with different therapy methods available depending on the situation and individual needs. A few therapy methods that are possible include:
There are very few medications that are likely to help with pica. Antipsychotic medications might help, but the possible side effects usually keep these medications from seeing widespread use.
There are very few complications that are possible with treatments for pica. If medications are part of the treatment, the possible side effects depend entirely on the medications themselves. Your healthcare provider is the best person to talk to about possible side effects, what to watch for and what you can do to help minimize their impact on your life.
Pica is a condition that’s usually benign but can become harmful depending on what a person eats. If you have pica, it’s important to have an honest discussion with your healthcare provider about it. They can offer guidance and resources to help you or refer you to a healthcare provider who has special training in this condition.
The recovery time for pica depends on the treatment and how well you do with it. Your healthcare provider is the person to ask for information about how long it’ll likely take for you to recover and what you can do to help the process happen smoothly.
Pica happens unpredictably, so there’s no way to prevent developing it. There’s also no way to reduce your risk of developing this condition.
The only thing you can do that relates to pica is to make sure you eat a balanced diet and don’t have any deficiencies in essential vitamins or minerals. While this isn’t exactly prevention or reducing risk, because nutritional deficiencies don’t count toward a pica diagnosis, this is still important overall.
Pica is a condition that’s sometimes dangerous on its own, depending on what non-food items a person eats. The main risks with this condition are when people eat items that are:
Pica is technically a life-long condition because it’s not considered curable. People who stop the behavior, either through treatment or who stop on their own, are considered “in remission” as long as they don’t resume the behavior.
Pica very commonly goes away on its own in children and in people who are pregnant. The condition is usually benign (harmless) for people in these circumstances. The condition itself isn’t dangerous, but it can lead to people eating dangerous items. With treatment, this condition can go into remission, and people can live their lives without difficulty from it.
If you have pica, talking to your healthcare provider is an important first step in getting help for it. Their job is to help you while also making sure you feel safe and not judged. They can also help by offering you guidance directly or suggesting an expert who can.
If you have pica and it’s causing issues that affect your life, it’s important to keep the following in mind:
Your healthcare provider can guide you in situations where you might need emergency medical care. Overall, you should seek medical attention if you have symptoms of more dangerous conditions, including the following:
You should also seek medical attention for children who swallow any potentially toxic or dangerous items. One example of this is any toy that involves small, magnetic objects, which can easily stick together in the digestive tract and cause life-threatening blockages.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Pica is a very common condition around the world, especially in some circumstances. While it’s usually a condition that people grow out of or stop on their own, for some, it can be a serious problem. The greatest risk is for people who consume items that are toxic, sharp or that can block their digestive tract. Fortunately, mental healthcare treatments and techniques can help this condition go into remission. If you have pica, it’s normal to feel embarrassed about it. But your healthcare provider isn’t there to judge you. Their job is to help you get the care and resources you need to overcome this condition. That way, you can move on with your life and focus on the things that are most important or that you most enjoy.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/06/2022.
Learn more about our editorial process.