In previous blogs I have looked at pica (i.e., the eating of non-nutritive items or substances) and subtypes of pica such as geophagia (eating of soil, mud, clay, etc.), pagophagia (eating of ice), acuphagia (eating of metal), and coprophagia (eating of faeces). It wasn’t until I started to research on specific sub-types of pica, that I discovered how many different types of non-food substances had been identified in the academic and clinical literature. For instance, Dr. V.J. Louw and colleagues provided a long list in a 2007 issue of the South African Medical Journal including cravings for the heads of burnt matches (cautopyreiophagia), cigarettes and cigarette ashes, paper, starch (amylophagia), crayons, cardboard, stones (lithophagia), mothballs, hair (trichophagia), egg shells, foam rubber, aspirin, coins, vinyl gloves, popcorn (arabositophagia), and baking powder. Most of these are generally thought to be harmless but as Louw and colleagues note, a wide range of medical problems have been documented:
“These include abdominal problems (sometimes necessitating surgery), hypokalaemia, hyperkalaemia, dental injury, napthalene poisoning (in pica for toilet air-freshener blocks), phosphorus poisoning (in pica for burnt matches), peritoneal mesothelioma (geophagia of asbestos-rich soil), mercury poisoning (in paper pica), lead poisoning (in dried paint pica and geophagia), and a pre-eclampsia-like syndrome (baking powder pica)”.
In the clinical literature, the eating of paper has been occasionally documented (although anecdotal evidence suggests this is fairly common and I remember doing it myself as a child). A recent review paper on pica by Dr. Silvestre Frenk and colleagues in the Mexican journal Boletín Médico del Hospital Infantil de México highlighted dozens of pica-subtypes and created many new names for various pica sub-types. They proposed that people who eat paper display ‘papirophagia’ (in fact if you type ‘papirphagia’ into Google, you only get one hit – the paper by Silvestre and colleagues – although this blog may make it two!). Eating paper is not thought to be particularly harmful although I did find a case of mercury poisoning because of ‘paper pica’ (as the authors – Dr. F. Olynk and Dr. D. Sharpe – called it) in a 1982 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
One sub-type of papirophagia is the eating of toilet paper. As far as I am aware, there is only one case study in the literature and this was published back in 1981, Dr. J. Chisholm Jr. and Dr. H. Martín in the Journal of the National Medical Association. They described the case of a 37-year old black woman with an “unusually bizarre craving” for toilet tissue paper. The authors reported that:
“[The] woman was referred for evaluation of disturbed smell and loss of taste for over one year. These were associated with chronic fatigue and listlessness. During this same period of time, she rather embarrassedly admitted to an overwhelming desire to eat toilet tissue. Frequently, she would awaken at night and dash to her bathroom to eat toilet tissue. No other type(s) of pica were admitted. In addition, she gave a long history of menorrhagia and frequently passed vaginal blood clots during her menses. Her libido was normal and there was no history of poor wound healing, skin or mucous membrane lesions, or intestinal symptoms. Her dietary history suggested a high carbohydrate diet, and due to a mild exogenous obesity she intermittently resorted to a vegan-like diet that included beans and various seeds”
A variety of medical tests were carried out and she was diagnosed with combined iron and zinc deficiency. She was treated with iron and zinc tablets and within a week, both her taste and smell had returned, and her energy levels greatly improved. Zinc deficiencies can lead to a wide variety of clinical disorders including loss of small and taste, anorexia, dwarfism (i.e., growth retardation), impaired wound healing, and geophagia. The woman’s (sometimes) vegan diet may have been to blame for her zinc deficiency as the authors noted that:
“Although vegetables contain zinc, vegans should be made aware that zinc from plant sources is not readily absorbed because naturally occurring phytates, particularly high in beans and seeds, reduce zinc gastrointestinal absorption. Carbohydrates are very poor sources of zinc. Chronic iron deficiency secondary to chronic menorrhagia accounts well for the anemia, fatigue, and unusual pica for toilet tissue noted in this patient”.
Paper pica has occasionally been mentioned in other academic papers although details have typically been limited. For instance, a 1995 paper in the journal Birth by Dr. N.R. Cooksey on three cases of pica in pregnancy reported that one of the women chewed non-perfumed blue toilet paper during the first trimester of her pregnancy (and was forced by her mother to stop). There was also a 2003 paper published by Dr. Dumaguing in the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology examining pica in mentally ill geriatrics. One of the cases mentioned was a 76-year old patient that not only ingested their medication (an emollient cream for arthritis) but was also recorded eating toilet paper, napkins, Styrofoam cups, crayons, and other patients’ medications.
A more recent 2008 paper by Dr. Sera Young and her colleagues in the journal PLoS ONE, critically reviewed procedures and guidelines for interviews and sample collection in relation to pica substances. In describing the protocols involved, they referred to paper pica in the questions that should be asked:
“What is the local name, brand name, or type of pica substance desired or consumed? This will help others to know if this substance has already been studied and assist interested researchers in obtaining subsequent samples at a later date. Furthermore, different manufactured products may contain different materials, e.g. Crayola chalkboard chalk contains slightly different ingredients from other brands. Similarly, the consequences of toilet tissue paper consumption are different from those of eating pages of a novel; information would be lost if the substance was simply described as paper. For these reasons, the substance consumed should be described in as much detail and as accurately as possible”.
Personally (and based on anecdotal evidence), I think that papirophagia is not overly rare (especially among children – although I admit this may be more out of curiosity that craving) but the clinical literature suggests that it is a fairly rare disorder found amongst distinct sub-groups (pregnant women, the mentally ill). Given the fact that for most people eating paper would not cause any problems, this would provide the main reason why so few cases end up seeking medical, clinical, and/or psychological help.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Chisholm Jr, J. C., & Martín, H. I. (1981). Hypozincemia, ageusia, dysosmia, and toilet tissue pica. Journal of the National Medical Association, 73(2), 163-164.
Cooksey, N.R. (1995). Pica and olfactory craving of pregnancy: How deep are the secrets? Birth, 22, 129-137.
Dumaguing, N.I., Singh, I., Sethi, M., & Devanand, D.P. (2003). Pica in the geriatric mentally ill: unrelenting and potentially fatal. Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology, 16, 189-191.
Frenk, S., Faure, M.A., Nieto, S. & Olivares, Z. (2013). Pica. Boletín Médico del Hospital Infantil de México, 70(1), 55-61
Louw, V.J., Du Preez, P., Malan, A., Van Deventer, L., Van Wyk, D., & Joubert, G. (2007). Pica and food craving in adults with iron deficiency in Bloemfontein, South Africa. South African Medical Journal, 97, 1069-1071.
Olynyk, F., & Sharpe, D. H. (1982). Mercury poisoning in paper pica. The New England Journal of Medicine, 306, 1056 -1057.
Young, S.L., Wilson, M.J., Miller, D., Hillier, S. (2008). Toward a comprehensive approach to the collection and analysis of pica substances, with emphasis on geophagic materials. PLoS ONE, 3(9), e3147. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003147