Pica (Eating Inedible Objects) and Polydipsia (Drinking Excessively)

Pica refers to eating objects which are not suitable to be eaten, such as stones, faeces and clothing. Polydipsia involves the constant desire to drink any type of liquid (for example, bleach or toiletries) even if the individual is not thirsty. Depending on the objects or liquid taken, pica and polydipsia can be very dangerous. If you are worried about a person who has eaten or drunk something which could be harmful, seek medical advice from a GP or hospital. 




What causes pica and polydipsia?

The exact causes of these conditions are unknown. Pica can be linked to mineral deficiencies but both conditions are often due to learned behaviours. These include:

  • Social attention
  • Getting a favourite activity
  • Escaping from a situation
  • Sensory feedback

A functional assessment can help identify why an adult or child is eating inedible objects or drinking excessively.

How can pica or polydipsia be reduced or eliminated?

Once the cause(s) has been identified, these tactics can be tried:

  • Social attention: ignore the behaviour (when safe) or prevent the adult or child from eating/drinking the object/liquid with the least possible attention. It is vital to provide lots of positive attention when the person is not eating/drinking inedible objects. In the longer term, teach a safe way of asking for attention (e.g., sign for help).
  • Obtaining a favourite activity: ensure the adult or child can access their favourite activity/object without eating/drinking a harmful item. In the longer term, teach a safe way of asking for their favourite activity (e.g., sign for biscuit).
  • Escaping from a situation: look for behaviours that tend to occur before the adult or child eats/drinks something inedible. These can tell you that the person wants to end an activity or escape. Think about whether the activity is too long, difficult, or something the person doesn’t like.
  • Sensory feedback (e.g., taste): provide the adult or child with items that safely offer the same experience. For example, if a person eats cigarette butts due to the strong taste, provide strong tasting foods (e.g., marmite).

What can you do?

  • Request a general health check from a GP to rule out medical problems as the cause.
  • Request a blood test from a GP to rule out iron and zinc deficiencies as the cause
  • Request a mental health assessment to rule out mental health problems as the cause.
  • Ask your GP or social worker for a referral to a clinical psychologist or behavioural specialist for an assessment.

For more information see the Challenging Behaviour Foundation information sheet Pica and Polydipsia, by Allan Davis, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Kent & Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust

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