If you are pregnant, you may be experiencing some very strange pregnancy cravings: perhaps you feel the need to eat some chili peppers and ice cream; or maybe you are craving some bananas and ketchup. Many women experience these somewhat odd flavor combinations throughout their pregnancies, and this is an entirely normal pregnancy symptom.

However, if you begin to crave non-food items such as chalk, dirt, or clay you may be suffering from a disorder called pica. Pica is a compulsive eating disorder that can occur during pregnancy. Though not uncommon, pica can cause serious health complications for both you and your baby.

What is Pica?

Pica is an eating disorder that causes you to crave non-food items. Pica literally means "magpie," a bird that has undiscerning tastes. People affected by this disorder are compelled to eat things that are not generally intended for consumption. During pregnancy, some women develop cravings for these non-food items. If you have been experiencing cravings or have been eating non-nutritive items for more than a month, you could be suffering from pica.

Who Gets Pica?

The pica eating disorder is most commonly seen in children between the ages of two and three. In fact, it is believed that between 1% and 5% of children in the United States suffer from this eating disorder, though this number is probably greatly underreported. Pica is also very common among those with developmental disorders, such as autism. Though pica is rarely seen in healthy adults, some pregnant women do seem to develop the disease. Pica commonly occurs in pregnant women who are:

  • experiencing their first pregnancy
  • under the age of 20
  • have suffered from pica as a child

Symptoms of Pica

There is only one symptom of pica: persistent cravings for non-food items. If you have pica you may find yourself craving:

  • dirt
  • clay
  • laundry detergent
  • soap
  • hair
  • ice
  • cigarette ashes

Symptoms of pica usually appear in the first or second trimester of pregnancy, and persist for more than one month. Though symptoms tend to disappear after pregnancy, there is a chance that your pica cravings could continue after labor and delivery.

What Causes Pica?

There are no known causes of the pica eating disorder in pregnancy. However, there are a number of theories as to why the disorder may develop:

  • Nutritional Deficiency: Pica may be your body�s natural response to a nutritional depletion, such as iron deficiency. When your body becomes deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, it tries to get these minerals by causing you to have strange dietary cravings. However, not every person with pica has a nutritional deficiency.
  • Cultural Factors: Cultural factors do play a role in some cases of pica. Pica is accepted in some cultures as a way of increasing spirituality or treating certain physical illnesses, like morning sickness.
  • Psychological Reasons: Mental illness or psychological trauma can trigger pica in some people. Pica is often a hallmark of extreme stress, fear, or abuse.

Complications of Pica

Pica can result in a number of different health complications that could cause you serious harm. This is why it is important to seek treatment as soon as possible for your pica cravings. Complications include:

  • Lead Poisoning: Eating substances that contain lead, such as soil, clay, or paint, could lead to lead poisoning, which can seriously harm both you and your baby, and can even result in death.
  • Bowel Obstruction: Eating non-food items, especially rocks, hair, and dirt, can cause your bowel to become obstructed. This can lead to severe constipation, bowel inflammation, and infection.
  • Parasite Infection: Items from the earth, including clay, soil, and grass, can be home to parasites. When you ingest these items, parasites can then infect your gastrointestinal tract causing pain, weight loss, and other side effects.
  • Dental Injury: Your teeth were not made to process non-food items. Hard substances like rocks, clay, and ice can cause serious damage to your teeth, and you may experience broken and fractured teeth.

Effects of Pica on Your Baby

Unfortunately, pica cravings can cause serious harm to your baby. Eating non-food items can actually prevent your body from absorbing the proper minerals and nutrients. This could mean that your baby is not receiving the proper nutrition, increasing his risk for a variety of complications, including low birth weight, preterm labor, and stillbirth.

Treating Pica

If you are suffering from pica disorder or if you think that you may be experiencing some pica-like behaviors, it is important that you visit with your health care professional for proper pica treatment. She will make sure that you are not suffering from any physical complications. Further tre

atment will be recommended to help you to overcome future pica cravings. Common treatments include:

  • nutritional supplements
  • medications to control cravings, stress, or depression
  • psychological counseling
  • behavior therapy
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