Kids do gross things. Sometimes they eat dirt. But did you know that eating dirt can be a sign of a medical problem? If your child eats dirt, he may be anemic. The medical term for eating something non-nutritive is “pica.” By definition, pica lasts a month or longer (it’s not a one-time thing). You can have pica for just about anything, but common offenders are dirt, paint, ice, paper, clay, sand, and metal. I once had a patient who had pica for foam. The mom didn’t notice his pica until he had eaten a good portion of his mattress and the side of the couch!
When a person with pica is anemic, the nutritional deficiency drives the desire to eat the object which is not food. It’s like the body is craving what it is missing and will get it anywhere it can. Now, to be complete, it is worth mentioning that pica can be seen in people with developmental disabilities or psychiatric disorders who are not anemic (but that is another problem altogether).
Gross factor aside, there are risks with eating things that aren’t food. First the body may not be able to digest it (e.g., stones may cause intestinal blockages or metal may damage the GI tract). Second, there are other harmful substances in it (e.g., soil with animal feces, parasites, or lead).
So if your kid is eating dirt, don’t chalk it up to “kids just being kids.” You should probably get that checked out. Be prepared, your doctor will likely order blood tests and check iron levels (perhaps lead as well). If you think your child has potentially ingested something poisonous, call Poison Control at (800) 222-1222. (By the way, you should add that number to your contact list in your phone if you haven’t already, it’s a keeper).