Pica is a condition that mostly affects pregnant people and children. People with it feel compelled to eat non-food items, such as dirt and things that are dangerous. They may be unable to stop.

People with the disorder pica compulsively eat items that have no nutritional value. A person with pica might eat relatively harmless items, such as ice. Or they might eat potentially dangerous items, likes flakes of dried paint or pieces of metal.

In the latter case, the disorder can lead to serious consequences, such as lead poisoning.

This disorder occurs most often in children and pregnant women. It’s usually temporary. See your doctor right away if you or your child can’t help but eat nonfood items. Treatment can help you avoid potentially serious side effects.

Pica also occurs in people who have intellectual disabilities. It’s often more severe and long-lasting in people with severe developmental disabilities.

People with pica eat nonfood items regularly. The behavior must continue for at least one month to qualify as pica.

If you have pica, you may regularly eat things such as:

  • ice
  • soap
  • buttons
  • clay
  • hair
  • dirt
  • sand
  • the unused remainder of a cigarette
  • cigarette ashes
  • paint
  • glue
  • chalk
  • feces

You may also eat other nonfood items.

There’s no single cause of pica. In some cases, a deficiency in iron, zinc, or another nutrient may be associated with pica. For example, anemia, usually from iron deficiency, may be the underlying cause of pica in pregnant women.

Your unusual cravings may be a sign that your body is trying to replenish low nutrient levels.

People with certain mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), may develop pica as a coping mechanism.

Some people may even enjoy and crave the textures or flavors of certain nonfood items. In some cultures, eating clay is an accepted behavior. This form of pica is called geophagia.

Dieting and malnourishment can both lead to pica. In these cases, eating nonfood items may help you feel full.

There’s no test for pica. Your doctor will diagnose this condition based on history and several other factors.

You should be honest with your doctor about the nonfood items you’ve eaten. This will help them develop an accurate diagnosis.

It may be hard for them to determine if you have pica if you don’t tell them what you’ve been eating. The same is true for children or people with intellectual disabilities.

Your doctor may test your blood to see if you have low levels of zinc or iron. This can help your doctor learn if you have an underlying nutrient deficiency, such as iron deficiency. Nutrient deficiencies may sometimes be related to pica.

Eating certain nonfood items can sometimes lead to other serious conditions. These conditions can include:

Your doctor will probably begin by treating any complications you’ve acquired from eating nonfood items. For example, if you have severe lead poisoning from eating paint chips, your doctor may prescribe chelation therapy.

In this procedure, you’ll be given medication that binds with lead. This will allow you to excrete the lead in your urine.

This medication may be taken by mouth, or your doctor may prescribe intravenous chelation medications for lead poisoning, such as ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA).

If your doctor thinks your pica is caused by nutrient imbalances, they may prescribe vitamin or mineral supplements. For example, they’ll recommend taking regular iron supplements if you’re diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia.

Your doctor may also order a psychological evaluation to determine if you have OCD or another mental health condition. Depending on your diagnosis, they may prescribe medications, therapy, or both.

Until recently, research hasn’t focused on medications to help people with pica. A 2000 study published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis suggested that a simple multivitamin supplement may be an effective treatment in some cases.

If a person with pica has an intellectual disability or mental health condition, medications for managing behavioral problems may also help reduce or eliminate their desire to eat nonnutritive items.

In children and pregnant women, pica often goes away in a few months without treatment. If a nutritional deficiency is causing your pica, treating it should ease your symptoms.

Pica doesn’t always go away. It can last for years, especially in people who have intellectual disabilities. Your doctor will help you understand the outlook for your specific case and what you can do to help manage the condition.