What is pica syndrome? Symptoms and treatments

Pica syndrome is a relatively uncommon form of eating disorder. This syndrome is characterized by cravings and frequent intolerance of non-food items such as chalk, clay, nails, screws, hair, etc.

pica syndrome

Pica syndrome is an eating disorder that occurs mainly in children and pregnant women

What is Pica Syndrome?

Pica syndrome (Pica Syndrome) is also known as bad eating syndrome. This syndrome is characterized by cravings for non-food things such as soil, sand, dried paint chips, buttons, soap, clay, paint, etc. Some people even eat sharp objects. , metals, waste and toxic substances harmful to the body.

Pica syndrome is one of the recognized eating disorders. According to statistics, this syndrome occurs mainly in children and pregnant women, especially those with mental health problems such as autism, epilepsy, developmental delay, schizophrenia, etc.

Similar to other types of eating disorders, experts have not found the exact cause of this syndrome. However, several factors have been identified that may increase the risk of the disease. Pica syndrome needs to be treated early to prevent complications of malnutrition and weight loss. In the worst case scenario, the patient can ingest chemicals that are toxic to the body leading to disability and death.

Recognizing Pica Syndrome (dirty eating syndrome)

Pica syndrome has very clear symptoms. However, some patients may conceal their intake of non-food items, making it impossible for the family to detect abnormalities. This syndrome is only diagnosed when the act of eating things other than food has been going on for at least 1 month.

pica syndrome

People with Pica syndrome often have cravings for things that are not food

Symptoms of Pica Syndrome:

  • Frequent behavior of eating non-food things, the most common of which are chalk, clay, dirt, coins, clothes, thread, cigarette butts, elastic bands, paper, etc.
  • Eating behavior is culturally discouraged and developmentally inappropriate. For example, some countries have special dishes from the earth, so eating these dishes is not considered Pica syndrome. In addition, the fact that young children do not have enough bad food intake is also accepted and not diagnosed as an eating disorder.
  • Bad eating syndrome is only diagnosed in children from 18 months of age. Because children under this age do not have enough awareness to distinguish what is food and what is inedible.
  • Notice how often children rummage through furniture to find things that they have an appetite for such as chalk, buttons, peeling walls, etc.
  • Parents may find some foreign objects in their child’s stool.

What causes Pica syndrome?

As mentioned, the causes of eating disorders in general and Pica syndrome in particular are unknown. However, the studies that have been done have somewhat identified a number of factors that increase the risk of this syndrome including:

pica syndrome

Hormonal changes during pregnancy are one of the factors that cause Pica syndrome

  • Lack of nutrients: Some studies show that people with iron and zinc deficiency are more likely to develop Pica syndrome. This explains why some pregnant women begin to have cravings for non-food items such as sharp objects, nails, coins, etc.
  • Mental retardation: From 18 months and up, babies have formed awareness and can distinguish what is food and what is inedible. However, with children with mental retardation, children do not distinguish this. Therefore, children can eat things that are not food.
  • Have a mental health problem: Experts find that most people with Pica syndrome have psychological problems. The most common are autism, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Experts say that the behavior of eating things other than food may be the body’s coping mechanism.
  • Distorted perception of body shape: In fact, most people with eating disorders have extreme eating habits and distorted views of beauty. This prompts some people to eat non-food items to create a feeling of fullness without causing weight gain.
  • Due to low living conditions: Pica syndrome is common among children with low living standards, frequent abuse, poverty, and lack of health care.
  • Hormonal changes during pregnancy: Pica syndrome is mainly seen in children and pregnant women. In addition to the cause of iron and zinc deficiency, experts believe that hormonal changes during pregnancy are also factors that cause this syndrome. Hormonal changes during pregnancy are also conditions for the development of psychological and psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, etc.

Is Pica syndrome (bad eating disorder) dangerous?

Most eating disorders seriously affect physical and mental health. Pica syndrome causes many health problems due to tolerance to things that are not food. These will often contain indigestible substances, parasites, and even toxins.

The severity of Pica syndrome will depend on what the patient eats and drinks. With innocuous things, patients only experience digestive upset. However, if the things the patient tolerates contain toxins and parasites, dangerous complications can occur such as lead poisoning, mercury poisoning, suffocation, intestinal obstruction and infection.

bad eating syndrome

Patients with bad eating syndrome face many complications related to the digestive system such as gastric and intestinal obstruction

In addition, the behavior of eating things that are not food can cause tooth wear, even cracked or broken teeth. Pregnant women with Pica syndrome often experience malnutrition, slow fetal growth, risk of birth defects, premature birth and miscarriage.

In general, people with Pica syndrome face many physical health problems. In addition, tolerating non-food items can lead to persistent abdominal pain. Some children may respond to pain with self-injury, aggression, irritability, and anger.

People with Pica syndrome are also at high risk of psychological and psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, inferiority complex, etc. In addition, because of strange eating behavior, patients may suffer from depression. isolated and tend to be socially isolated.

Fortunately, this syndrome can go away on its own after a few months without treatment. However, there are also cases where the disease persists for many years. Therefore, doctors still encourage patients to get treatment to avoid unfortunate situations.

Diagnosis of Pica . syndrome

Pica syndrome has been recognized as an official mental disorder. Diagnosis of this syndrome is mainly based on the clinical manifestation of non-food eating behavior lasting at least 1 month. In addition, the doctor will order some basic tests to determine the cause and detect complications.

Steps to diagnose Pica syndrome (bad eating syndrome):

  • Hemoglobin test to determine if you have iron deficiency anemia
  • Iron quantitative test
  • Serum zinc concentration test
  • Test for parasites
  • Stool examination for foreign bodies and blood (due to gastrointestinal bleeding)

After making a diagnosis, your doctor will consider appropriate treatments. In addition to medical treatments, people with Pica syndrome need significant support from their family to be able to overcome the condition and form healthier eating habits.

Treatments for Pica . syndrome

After diagnosing Pica syndrome, the first step the physician takes is to examine the patient’s behavior to detect acute conditions (toxicity, foreign body in the stomach, intestinal obstruction). When the acute condition is under control (if any), the patient will be prescribed treatment methods.

Approaches to be considered in the treatment of Pica syndrome:

1. Zinc and Iron Supplements

As mentioned, the majority of patients with Pica syndrome are zinc and iron deficient. Therefore, the patient will be supplemented with these two minerals if the test shows low serum zinc and iron levels.

In addition, patients will be advised on appropriate nutrition and may use more functional foods if there is a phenomenon of malnutrition. Adequate nutrition will help improve health and at the same time reduce cravings for non-food items.

2. Treatment of complications

The behavior of eating things other than food predisposes patients with Pica syndrome to lead poisoning. Therefore, in some cases, it is indicated to use oral or injectable drugs to eliminate lead poisoning. Currently, ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid is the most commonly used lead detoxifier.

Once tolerated, ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid will combine with lead to form a complex inside the gastrointestinal tract. This compound will then be excreted through urine and feces. However, ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid is only effective in mild lead poisoning. Severe cases will require dialysis and even hemodialysis.

In addition, patients will also be treated for constipation, diarrhea, stomach ulcers and infections caused by Pica syndrome. In some cases, a person may need surgery due to a blockage in the intestines and stomach.

3. Psychotherapy

Eating disorders in general and binge eating syndrome in particular are often linked to mental health. In addition to iron and zinc supplements, your doctor will consider psychotherapy in some cases.

bad eating syndrome
Psychotherapy is the method of choice for patients with binge eating syndrome

The goal of psychotherapy is to reduce abnormal eating behaviors and direct the patient to a healthy diet. In addition, this method also helps patients learn how to release emotions and change negative behaviors.

Dirty eating syndrome is common in children with autism and people with mental problems. Therefore, psychotherapy is also performed to relieve symptoms of mental disorders.

4. Treatment of accompanying mental disorders

The behavior of eating things other than food may be a coping mechanism associated with mental health problems. To change the strange eating behavior, the doctor will prescribe treatment for the accompanying mental disorders.

In fact, most mental disorders are chronic and almost impossible to cure. However, aggressive treatment can control the disease, limit abnormal eating behavior and help improve the quality of the patient.

When mental disorders are under control, Pica syndrome will also be in significant remission. In some cases, this syndrome can go away on its own within a few months without treatment. However, there are also cases where the disease persists for many years (especially in patients with intellectual disability). Therefore, therapeutic intervention is essential to control the disease early and prevent serious complications.

5. Family support

During treatment, patients with Pica syndrome need significant support from their families. In fact, some people are aware of the consequences of abnormal eating behavior but can’t help but feel hungry. Therefore, the family needs to accompany the patient during this time.

Tips for families with someone with Pica syndrome:

  • Should clean things that the patient can eat out of the living environment such as chalk, dirt, stones, coins, sharp objects, soap, etc. Pay special attention to removing toxic substances such as lead, mercury. mercury and acid to limit the danger to the patient.
  • Build a balanced diet to provide nutrition to the body and help patients improve their physical health. When processing, the menu should be varied to stimulate appetite. This can limit the patient’s cravings for non-food items such as screws, clay, chalk, etc.
  • Do not blame or criticize the patient. Instead, the patient should be encouraged to persevere in treatment to overcome the illness.
  • According to psychologists, families should have rewards to encourage children to eat healthy. Rewarding behavior reinforces healthy habits, which in turn helps children correct unusual eating behaviors and change negative reactions to food.

Pica syndrome is one of the recognized eating disorders. This syndrome can go away on its own after a few months, but has potentially serious consequences. Therefore, families need to pay attention to the manifestations of children and pregnant women to promptly intervene with treatment measures

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