Find Information About:

Drugs & Supplements

Get information and reviews on prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements. Search by name or medical condition.

Pill Identifier

Pill Identifier

Having trouble identifying your pills?

Enter the shape, color, or imprint of your prescription or OTC drug. Our pill identification tool will display pictures that you can compare to your pill.

Get Started

My Medicine

Save your medicine, check interactions, sign up for FDA alerts, create family profiles and more.

Get Started

WebMD Health Experts and Community

Talk to health experts and other people like you in WebMD's Communities. It's a safe forum where you can create or participate in support groups and discussions about health topics that interest you.

  • Second Opinion

    Second Opinion

    Read expert perspectives on popular health topics.

  • Community


    Connect with people like you, and get expert guidance on living a healthy life.

Got a health question? Get answers provided by leading organizations, doctors, and experts.

Get Answers

Sign up to receive WebMD's award-winning content delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up

Mental Health Center

Font Size

Mental Health and Pica

Pica is the persistent eating of substances such as dirt or paint that have no nutritional value.

The Handbook of Clinical Child Psychologycurrently estimates that prevalence rates of pica range from 4%-26% among institutionalized populations. Research among non-institutionalized populations takes the form of individual case studies, making prevalence rates difficult to estimate.

Recommended Related to Mental Health

What Triggers PTSD?

Some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after living through a shocking or dangerous experience. When you're in danger, your body's natural response is to feel scared. That's when your body turns on its "fight or flight" response. In the face of something life-threatening, it revs up your heart rate, sends blood to your muscles to get ready to run, and amps up stress hormones to help fight off bleeding and infection in case you get hurt. Your brain tells your body that some of...

Read the What Triggers PTSD? article > >

How Is Pica Diagnosed?

If pica is suspected, a medical evaluation is important to assess for possible anemia, intestinal blockages, or potential toxicity from ingested substances. If symptoms are present, the doctor will begin an evaluation by performing a complete medical history and physical exam. The doctor may use certain tests -- such as X-rays and blood tests -- to check for anemia and look for toxins and other substances in the blood, and to check for blockages in the intestinal tract. The doctor also may test for possible infections caused by eating items contaminated with bacteria or other organisms. A review of the person's eating habits also may be conducted.

Before making a diagnosis of pica, the doctor will evaluate the presence of other disorders -- such as mental retardation, developmental disabilities, or obsessive-compulsive disorder -- as the cause of the odd eating behavior. This pattern of behavior must last at least one month for a diagnosis of pica to be made.


How Is Pica Treated?

Given the risk of medical complications (such as lead poisoning) associated with pica, close medical monitoring is necessary throughout treatment of the eating behavior. Additionally, close collaboration with a mental health team skilled in treating pica is ideal for optimal treatment of these complex cases.

The Handbook for Clinical Child Psychology currently supports general behavioral strategies as the most effective treatment approach for pica, with training in which foods are edible and which foods cannot be eaten through the use of positive reinforcement.

What Complications Are Associated With Pica?

There are many potential complications of pica, such as:

  • Certain items, such as paint chips, may contain lead or other toxic substances and eating them can lead to poisoning, increasing the child's risk of complications including learning disabilities and brain damage. This is the most concerning and potentially lethal side effect of pica
  • Eating non-food objects can interfere with eating healthy food, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies.
  • Eating objects that cannot be digested, such as stones, can cause constipation or blockages in the digestive tract, including the intestines and bowels. Also, hard or sharp objects (such as paperclips or metal scraps) can cause tears in the lining of the esophagus or intestines.
  • Bacteria or parasites from dirt or other objects can cause serious infections. Some infections can damage the kidneys or liver.
  • Co-existing developmental disabilities can make treatment difficult.

Today on WebMD

Differences between feeling depressed or feeling blue.
lunar eclipse
Signs of mania and depression.
man screaming
Causes, symptoms, and therapies.
woman looking into fridge
When food controls you.
Woman standing in grass field barefoot, wind blowi
senior man eating a cake
woman reading medicine warnings
depressed young woman
man with arms on table
man cringing and covering ears

WebMD Special Sections