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He pica disorder it is included in eating disorders and involves the consumption of substances without nutritional content such as dirt, hair or paper, among others. It is a disease that can affect both children and adolescents or adults, without differences in sex. Sometimes it can also be seen during pregnancy.
The word pica comes from the Latin name for the magpie, a bird known for its large and indiscriminate appetite. Also known as allotrophagia, its main characteristic is the uncontrolled consumption of a myriad of non-nutritive substances such as paper, soap, hair, fabrics, ropes, dirt, plastics, plaster, paint, rubber, metal, wood, coal, ash or cigarette butts, clay, ice, toothpaste, feces, buttons, glue ...
However, although people with pica eat some of these substances, they are not usually reluctant to eat food and their consumption will vary depending on age and availability or accessibility to them.
The specific causes of pica disorder are unknown, although there are certain situations that can increase the risk of suffering from it:
- Nutritional deficiencies, such as iron or zinc, can trigger urges to eat a specific substance.
- Malnutrition, especially in developing countries.
- Dieting. Dieters may seek to decrease their appetite by ingesting substances to obtain a feeling of fullness.
- Mental health problems. Autism, intellectual disability, or other disorders such as schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Pica has also been linked to trichotillomania (pulling one's hair) or excoriation (cutting oneself on the skin).
In order to make the diagnosis of pica, we must observe this eating behavior persistently for a period of at least one month. This behavior should not be part of any cultural, ethnic or religious practice and the fact of consuming these substances should be considered inappropriate for their development.
Therefore, the pica disorder It cannot be diagnosed in children under 2 years of age, since at that age it is considered part of normal development to put objects to the mouth as a way of exploring the environment (with the possibility of accidental ingestion).
Furthermore, there is no complementary test to confirm the diagnosis of pica. This is done through the medical history with the data that we have already explained previously. Sometimes it is necessary to perform a blood test to rule out anemia or other nutritional deficiencies or other studies to rule out possible side effects of the substances consumed, such as looking for parasites in the feces of children who eat dirt, since their infection by this via is common.
What worries most in this disorder are the problems and complications that the intake of these non-nutritional substances can cause:
- Poisonings. One of the most frequent is lead poisoning, secondary to the ingestion of plaster from the walls of old houses that contain this metal.
- Abdominal problems. From constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain to intestinal obstruction or perforation. For example, eating hair can cause significant intestinal obstructions that sometimes require surgical intervention.
- Alterations in the teeth or wounds in the mouth.
- Infections, especially by parasites.
Regarding treatment, first of all nutritional deficits will be ruled out and corrected if found. If the cause is due to a nutritional deficit, in most cases when it is corrected, the behavior will disappear.
If the cause is not related to a nutritional problem or does not improve after resolution, the disorder should be addressed from both a medical and a psychological point of view and it will be very important that there is a great involvement on the part of the family. Surely the child is referred to a service specialized in child mental health where they will monitor you and discuss the different treatment options.
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