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Pica (allotrophagia): causes, symptoms and possible treatments

Pica (allotrophagia): causes, symptoms and possible treatments

May 6, 2021

There are different types of eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia. Even though the latter are well known, for most people, some of them are not. One of these is the Pica Syndrome or Alotrophagia , an eating disorder that affects mostly children.

Its main characteristic is that the person who suffers feels an uncontainable desire or impulse to ingest substances that are not nutritious , among them, earth, ants, bicarbonate, glue, insects, paper, small pieces of plastic or wood.

Pica Syndrome is associated with children with cognitive difficulties and other developmental disorders, for example, autism. Up to 30% of children with this disorder have Pica. Although this behavior can be seen in other children of young age, individuals with autism continue to perform this practice at older ages.

  • Recommended article: "10 signs and symptoms to identify Autism"

Pica syndrome: main characteristics

Therefore, this disorder is characterized by a persistent desire that leads the person to want to eat substances such as earth or paint . Substances that, in addition to containing zero nutritional value, cause the person with Pica to put their health at risk.

The Manual of Child Clinical Psychology It is estimated that currently the prevalence of this disorder corresponds to between 4% and 26% of the institutionalized population. Some of the most frequent causes of Pica Syndrome are nutritional disorders, mental illnesses and psychological problems. However, in most cases the detonator of this behavior is not known.

But nevertheless, It is important to treat this problem as soon as possible to avoid complications , as a greater risk of suffering gastrointestinal diseases and social maladjustment

How Pica Syndrome is diagnosed

If there are suspicions that someone may suffer from this disorder, an immediate medical evaluation is important to know if there is anemia, intestinal problems or toxicity caused by the ingested substances . The doctor may use X-ray tests or blood tests to determine the extent or consequences of such use.

In addition, the doctor can also perform a thorough evaluation to see if there are possible infections caused by objects or substances contaminated with batteries. On the other hand, it is important to carry out a review of the patient's eating habits.

The presence of the psychologist is also important when making a correct diagnosis . It is essential to assess the presence of other disorders, such as mental retardation, developmental disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

According to the DSM-V, the pattern of behavior of the person with Pica has the following characteristics:

  • The persistent feeding of inappropriate substances must last at least one month for the diagnosis of Pica Syndrome.
  • The feeding of non-nutritive substances is inappropriate for the level of development of the individual.
  • Inappropriate eating behavior is not part of a cultural or social practice.
  • If it occurs in the presence of another mental disorder (eg, autism) or during a medical condition (eg, pregnancy) it is severe enough to require independent medical attention.

Treatments and follow-ups

Due to the high risk of medical complications (eg, poisoning) associated with Pica, Close medical supervision is necessary during the entire treatment of the eating behavior . Obviously, this treatment is not understood without the figure of a psychologist and / or psychiatrist expert in the treatment of eating behavior.

The Manual of Child Clinical Psychology emphasizes the application of cognitive-behavioral strategies due to its effectiveness for the treatment of this type of psychopathologies. For example, it is possible to train the subjects to eat or not to eat harmful substances with the application of reinforcement techniques .

Complications associated with Pica Syndrome

As already mentioned, This disorder can cause serious health problems . Some of the complications associated with Pica Syndrome are:

  • Certain products such as paint may include toxic substances , and eating them can lead to poisoning. This can cause serious complications, for example, brain damage and even death.
  • The ingestion of substances that can not be digested (eg stones) can cause constipation or blockage in the digestive tract, including the intestines. In addition, sharp objects can cause injuries to the mouth, neck or stomach.
  • Ingested bacteria or parasites can cause infections serious that can damage both the liver and the kidneys.
  • The existence of other psychological disorders can hinder the treatment of Pica Syndrome.


In general, the Pica Syndrome begins in childhood and lasts only a few months. However, it is likely to be more difficult for children with developmental disabilities to manage, since they can continue to show this behavior in advanced ages .

But can this eating disorder be prevented? There is no specific way to prevent it. However, careful attention to the children's eating habits and close supervision of children more likely to put things in their mouths can help prevent the disease before complications can arise.

As always happens with this type of disorders, avoid that this type of behavior becomes part of the daily habits of the person is essential, so that the earlier you intervene, the better. Once this behavior is consolidated, it is more complicated to make it disappear.

An irrational impulse

The Pica Syndrome is a sign that, in certain circumstances, the human being is capable of embracing extremely harmful and maladaptive behavior patterns that have no clear advantage. In the allotrofagia not only the stomach is filled impulsively , but also the substances that are ingested are not nutritious and, in many cases, they are toxic.

To come to understand what psychological mechanisms are behind the Pica Syndrome is to find the mental processes that reinforce this "loop" of actions that is maintained over time, giving up explanations based on rational decisions of the patient.

Pica-Pica - Se acabaron las navidades (20 minutos) (May 2021).

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