Pica is characterized by an appetite for substances that are largely non-nutritive, such as ice (pagophagia); hair (trichophagia); paper (xylophagia); drywall or paint; metal (metallophagia); stones (lithophagia) or soil (geophagia); glass (hyalophagia); or feces (coprophagia); and chalk. According to DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition) criteria, for these actions to be considered pica, they must persist for more than one month at an age where eating such objects is considered developmentally inappropriate, not part of culturally sanctioned practice and sufficiently severe to warrant clinical attention. It can lead to intoxication in children, which can result in an impairment of both physical and mental development. In addition, it can also lead to surgical emergencies due to an intestinal obstruction as well as more subtle symptoms such as nutritional deficiencies and parasitosis. Pica has been linked to other mental and emotional disorders. Stressors such as emotional trauma, maternal deprivation, family issues, parental neglect, pregnancy, and a disorganized family structure are strongly linked to pica as a form of comfort.
Pica is most commonly seen in pregnant women, small children, and those with developmental disabilities such as autism. Children eating painted plaster containing lead may suffer brain damage from lead poisoning. There is a similar risk from eating soil near roads that existed before tetraethyllead in petrol was phased out (in some countries) or before people stopped using contaminated oil (containing toxic PCBs or dioxin) to settle dust. In addition to poisoning, there is also a much greater risk of gastro-intestinal obstruction or tearing in the stomach. Another risk of eating soil is the ingestion of animal feces and accompanying parasites. Pica can also be found in other animals and is commonly found in dogs.
Treatment for pica may vary by patient and suspected cause (e.g., child, developmentally disabled, pregnant or psychogenic) and may emphasize psychosocial, environmental and family-guidance approaches, (iron deficiency) may be treatable though iron supplement through dietary changes. An initial approach often involves screening for and, if necessary, treating any mineral deficiencies or other comorbid conditions. For pica that appears to be of psychogenic cause, therapy and medication such as SSRIs have been used successfully. However, previous reports have cautioned against the use of medication until all non-psychogenic causes have been ruled out.