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Pica is an eating disorder that is characterized by the consumption of non-nutritive substance persistently for at least 1 month.


The typical substances ingested tend to vary with age. Infants and younger children typically eat paint, plaster, string, hair, or cloth. Older children may eat animal droppings, sand, insects, leaves, or pebbles. Adolescents and adults may consume clay or soil. There is no aversion to food. This behavior must be developmentally inappropriate and not part of a culturally sanctioned practice.

The eating of non-nutritive substances is an associated feature of other mental disorders (e.g., Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Mental Retardation). If the eating behavior occurs exclusively during the course of another mental disorder, a separate diagnosis of Pica should be made only if the eating behavior is sufficiently severe to warrant independent clinical attention.

Associated Features

Pica is frequently associated with Mental Retardation and Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Although vitamin or mineral deficiencies (e.g., zinc) have been reported in some instances, usually no specific biological abnormalities are found. In some cases, Pica comes to clinical attention only following general medical complications (e.g., lead poisoning as a result of ingesting paint or paint-soaked plaster, mechanical bowel problems, intestinal obstruction as a result of hair ball tumors, intestinal perforation, or infections such as toxoplasmosis and toxocariasis as a result of ingesting feces or dirt). Poverty, neglect, lack of parental supervision, and developmental delay increase the risk for the condition.

    Diagnostic criteria summarized from:

    American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.


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