Pica is an eating disorder in which people eat nonfood substances such as paint or dirt, notes WebMD. The prevalence of pica ranges from 4 percent to 26 percent of people who are institutionalized.
Anemia and intestinal blockages are signs of pica, and doctors run tests for potential toxicity in patients they suspect suffer from the condition, states WebMD. People suffering from pica may also develop infections caused by bacteria or other organisms in the things they are eating. Before making a diagnosis of pica, doctors rule out other causes such as mental retardation, developmental disabilities or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Once other conditions have been ruled out, doctors may diagnose pica in patients who have displayed the eating behavior pattern for at least one month.
Doctors, in collaboration with mental health professionals, monitor closely those who are diagnosed with pica, as the condition can lead to serious medical complications such as lead poisoning, according to WebMD. Lead poisoning may lead to learning disabilities and brain damage, and the ingestion of nonfood items may also lead to nutritional deficiencies, tears in the lining of the esophagus or intestinal tract and infections. Pica usually develops in children and lasts for a few months, and it is difficult to manage in children who have developmental disabilities. Doctors treat pica with behavioral modification treatments, such as positive reinforcement training around edible foods and items that are not edible.