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ICD-10 F50.8, F98.3
ICD-9 307.52
DiseasesDB 29704
MeSH D010842

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Kiran Singh, M.D. [2] Fahimeh Shojaei, M.D.

Synonyms and Keywords: Pica syndrome


Historical Perspective

  • Pica is derived from a Latin word 'pica pica' which means magpie, a bird known for its behavior of gathering and eating almost everything.
  • It was first documented in the 13th century in Latin work of Bartholomeus de Glanville, although the actual term was not used.[1]
  • The first time term ‘Pica’ was mentioned in a medical context was in 1563 in a surgical work, ‘An Excellent Treatise of Wounds made with Gonne Shot’, by Thomas Gale, where pica was addressed in pregnant women and children.[1]
  • Historically, clay ingestion had been used for medical purposes probably due to its effect on gastrointestinal (GI) system. It was particularly suggested as a treatment of intestinal infection and spasm.[2]


Pica may be classified according to the name of the eaten substance; the most common types by far are geophagia and amylophagia:

  • Acuphagia (sharp objects)
  • Amylophagia (purified starch)
  • Cautopyreiophagia (burnt matches)
  • Coniophagia (dust, dirt)
  • Coprophagia (feces)
  • Emetophagia (vomit)
  • Geomelophagia (raw potatoes)
  • Geophagia (earth, soil, clay, chalk)
  • Hyalophagia (glass)
  • Lithophagia (stones)
  • Metallophagia (metal)
  • Mucophagia (mucus)
  • Pagophagia (ice)
  • Plumbophagia (lead, paint chips)
  • Trichophagia (hair, wool, fibers)
  • Urophagia (urine)
  • Hematophagia (blood)
  • Xylophagia (wood, paper)
  • Hyalophagia (glass)
  • Ryzophagia (raw rice)
  • Sapophagia (soap)


The exact pathogenesis of Pica is not fully understood. However there are different theories on developing Pica:

Nutritional Theory

  • Children with anemia and low plasma zinc levels may develop Pica and crave for substances rich in the insufficient nutrients.[3]
  • Kaolinite, a clay mineral, which has negative surface charge commonly ingested in Pica and can absorb the ions with positive surface charge, such as iron and causes iron-deficiency anemia.[4] [5]
  • There is not enough evidence to determine whether Pica is the cause of nutritional deficiency or nutritional deficiency leads to Pica development.[4] [6]

Gastrointestinal Distress

Geophagia causes increase in gastrointestinal PH. This effect can soothe gastric pain and gastroesophageal reflux.[7] It also results in reduction of bioavailability of pathogens and toxins in gastrointestinal tract[8], a phenomenon on which a hypothesis is based. The hypothesis states that non-nutritive substances bind to toxins and lead to less toxins absorption. This event occurs in the most vulnerable period of cell replication and growth (childhood and pregnancy) in order to protect the body from dangerous toxins.[9][10][11]

Neurological Theory

  • Various human studies reveal that lesions in eating center of hypothalamus and anterior cingulate gyrus may lead hyperphagia and Pica especially in individuals with history of brain damage.[6][12]
  • Animal studies indicate that rats with iron deficiency anemia have fewer D2 receptors in the central nervous system (CNS). This proposes a theory stating that reduction of dopaminergic neurotransmission leads to development of Pica, and not the iron deficiency anemia.[13]

Psychiatric Theory

A hypothesis states that Pica can be attributed to obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders because Pica-related behaviors are mostly involuntary, recurrent, and persistent to soothe the anxiety and distress, and resistance to stop the behaviors causes increased level of anxiety and distress.[14][15] This hypothesis is supported by studies that have found that Pica has the same treatment as OCD, i.e selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.[16]


The cause of Pica has not been identified. To review risk factors for the development of Pica, click here.

Differentiating ((Page name)) from other Diseases

Pica must be differentiated from other psychiatric diseases including autism, schizophrenia, other eating disorders, developmental delay in children, substance abuse.[17][18]

Epidemiology and Demographics

The incidence/prevalence of [disease name] is approximately [number range] per 100,000 individuals worldwide.


In [year], the incidence/prevalence of [disease name] was estimated to be [number range] cases per 100,000 individuals worldwide.


In [year], the incidence of [disease name] is approximately [number range] per 100,000 individuals with a case-fatality rate of [number range]%.

Patients of all age groups may develop [disease name].


The incidence of [disease name] increases with age; the median age at diagnosis is [#] years.


[Disease name] commonly affects individuals younger than/older than [number of years] years of age.


[Chronic disease name] is usually first diagnosed among [age group].


[Acute disease name] commonly affects [age group].

There is no racial predilection to [disease name].


[Disease name] usually affects individuals of the [race 1] race. [Race 2] individuals are less likely to develop [disease name].

[Disease name] affects men and women equally.


[Gender 1] are more commonly affected by [disease name] than [gender 2]. The [gender 1] to [gender 2] ratio is approximately [number > 1] to 1.

The majority of [disease name] cases are reported in [geographical region].


[Disease name] is a common/rare disease that tends to affect [patient population 1] and [patient population 2].

Risk Factors

There are no established risk factors for [disease name].


The most potent risk factor in the development of [disease name] is [risk factor 1]. Other risk factors include [risk factor 2], [risk factor 3], and [risk factor 4].


Common risk factors in the development of [disease name] include [risk factor 1], [risk factor 2], [risk factor 3], and [risk factor 4].


Common risk factors in the development of [disease name] may be occupational, environmental, genetic, and viral.


There is insufficient evidence to recommend routine screening for Pica.

Natural History, Complications, and Prognosis

If left untreated, [#]% of patients with [disease name] may progress to develop [manifestation 1], [manifestation 2], and [manifestation 3].


Common complications of [disease name] include [complication 1], [complication 2], and [complication 3].


Prognosis is generally excellent/good/poor, and the 1/5/10-year mortality/survival rate of patients with [disease name] is approximately [#]%.


Diagnostic Study of Choice

The diagnosis of Pica is based on the criteria from Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5),[19] which include:

1.Person must have been eating non-nutritive nonfoods for at least one month.

2.This eating must be considered abnormal for the person's stage of development.

3.Eating these substances cannot be associated with a cultural practice that is considered normal in the social context of the individual.

4.For people who currently have a medical condition (e.g.: pregnancy) or a mental disorder (e.g.: autism spectrum disorder), the action of eating non-nutritive nonfoods should only be considered pica if it is dangerous and requires extra medical investigation or treatment on top of what they are already receiving for their pre-existing condition.

History and Symptoms

Symptoms of Pica is variable and depend on the material which is ingested.

Physicians should seek the details of the exposure, including[20]:

  • the substance type,
  • the amount of substance,
  • duration of exposure,
  • situations where behavior usually happens,
  • any co-ingestions, and
  • symptoms of toxicity

Physical Examination

Patients with Pica usually appear normal[21]. However, sings of poisoning and complications of the ingested substance should be sought:[20][22][23]

  • Ingestion of some substances may lead to bezoar formation and consequently, intestinal obstruction, ulceration, and perforation,
  • Lead poisoning symptoms include:[24]
    • lethargy,
    • headache,
    • seizure,
    • encephalopathy,
    • cranial nerve palsy,
    • papilledema,
    • cognitive impairment,
    • peripheral neuropathy,
    • abdominal pain and constipation,
    • lead-line at the junction of gums and teeth, and
    • developmental delay in children.
  • Signs of parasitic infections (Toxocara and Ascaris) due to clay ingestion include:
    • fever,
    • cough,
    • myocarditis,
    • encephalitis,
    • hepatomegaly, and
    • visual disturbance.
  • Malnourishment, especially in children[25][26]
  • Signs of iron deficiency anemia:
    • pallor,
    • easy fatigability,
    • poor appetite,
    • tachycardia and a soft ejection systolic flow murmur in severe cases.
  • Dental complications such as severe abrasion and tooth damages.[27]

Laboratory Findings

Laboratory findings consistent with the diagnosis of Pica include:[28][1][29]

  • CBC (anemia)
  • Electrolyte and nutrient evaluation (zinc deficiency, hyperkalemia)
  • Liver function test
  • Stool exam for parasite infections
  • Blood lead concentration


There are no ECG findings associated with Pica.


There are no x-ray findings associated with Pica. However, an x-ray may be helpful in the diagnosis of complications of Pica, which include lead lines at the metaphysis of long bones[6] and foreign bodies in chest or abdominal x-ray.[30]

Echocardiography or Ultrasound

There are no echocardiography/ultrasound findings associated with Pica. However, an ultrasound may be helpful to reveal the location, size and the nature of the substance.[6]

CT scan

There are no CT scan findings associated with Pica.


There are no MRI findings associated with Pica.

Other Imaging Findings

There are no other imaging findings associated with Pica.

Other Diagnostic Studies

There are no other diagnostic studies associated with Pica.


Medical Therapy

The majority of cases of Pica are self-limited and require only supportive care.[31] Supportive therapy for Pica includes:

  • nutrient supplements such as iron and zinc in case of deficiency.[32][33][34]
  • Behavioral therapy, psychotherapy and family counseling particularly in children.[35][36]


Surgical intervention is not recommended for the management of Pica, Unless it causes sever obstruction or perforation.

Primary Prevention

Effective measures for the primary prevention of Pica include:

  • Identifying high- risk populations such as pregnant women and children who live in old house with lead paint,[37][38][39]
  • Nutrition education in at-risk populations about the danger and consequences of Pica,[40][41]
  • Educating parents to supervise their children and make their home and environment safe.[2]

Secondary Prevention

There are no established measures for the secondary prevention of Pica.


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  2. 2.0 2.1 Rose EA, Porcerelli JH, Neale AV (2000). "Pica: common but commonly missed". J Am Board Fam Pract. 13 (5): 353–8. PMID 11001006.
  3. Miao D, Young SL, Golden CD (2015). "A meta-analysis of pica and micronutrient status". Am J Hum Biol. 27 (1): 84–93. doi:10.1002/ajhb.22598. PMC 4270917. PMID 25156147.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Ali, Zainab (2009). "Pica in people with intellectual disability: a literature review of aetiology, epidemiology and complications". Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability. 26 (3): 205–215. doi:10.1080/13668250020054486. ISSN 1366-8250.
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  7. Kettaneh A, Eclache V, Fain O, Sontag C, Uzan M, Carbillon L, Stirnemann J, Thomas M (February 2005). "Pica and food craving in patients with iron-deficiency anemia: a case-control study in France". Am J Med. 118 (2): 185–8. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2004.07.050. PMID 15694906.
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  14. Hergüner S, Ozyildirim I, Tanidir C (December 2008). "Is Pica an eating disorder or an obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder?". Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 32 (8): 2010–1. doi:10.1016/j.pnpbp.2008.09.011. PMID 18848964.
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  17. Rabel A, Leitman SF, Miller JL (February 2016). "Ask about ice, then consider iron". J Am Assoc Nurse Pract. 28 (2): 116–20. doi:10.1002/2327-6924.12268. PMC 4635104. PMID 25943566.
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