Licking & Vitamin Deficiencies in Children

baby eating a wooden toy
Unusual licking habits could be a sign of vitamin deficiency. (Image: Anna Ivanova/iStock/Getty Images)

Children do the most unusual things with their mouths, leaving parents to wonder why. Young kids like to explore their environment and naturally lick or put items in their mouths. However, habitual or unusual licking could be concerning. In some instances, it could be a sign of a vitamin deficiency. If a child has a licking habit, a doctor should be seen to assess for a vitamin deficiency or other health concern.

Vitamin Deficiencies

A vitamin deficiency occurs when there is a significant lack of the vitamin in the body. Vitamin deficiencies can cause problems in every part of the body - vision, bones, memory, mood, energy, behavior, muscles, preventing illness, and even the skin. Sometimes, a vitamin deficiency may even cause a child to have an unusual licking habit. Good nutrition is important to prevent vitamin deficiencies and its complications. (ref 4, page 134) (ref 5, page 1836 intro) (ref 6,page 20)

Licking and the Mouth

Cheilosis is cracked and crusty skin at the corners of the mouth. The skin damage can be caused by constant lip licking, mineral deficiencies, and vitamin B and vitamin C deficiencies. The skin can be red, swollen, and very uncomfortable, making eating and talking difficult. A child often tries to soothe the broken skin by licking it, making the problem worse. The skin can get infected and require medical treatment. (ref 2, page 183) (ref 3, page 28) (ref 4, page 134) (ref 6, page 20)

Unusual Licking

Pica is an unnatural craving for nonfood items like dirt, clay, ice, or starch. Children with pica are often seen licking the ground, floor, paint, glue, hair or other unusual objects. The cause of pica is unknown but is thought to be a deficiency of iron or zinc in the diet. Pica can be associated with other health problems and should be evaluated by a doctor. (ref 1, clinical features page 101, pathology page 102) (ref 8, page 407)

How to Help

The first step in correcting the licking problem is to stop the habit. Provide good nutrition to replace the missing vitamins. A full stomach can keep unwanted items out of the mouth. Keep the mouth area clean and apply a lip moisturizer. Stay away from acidic foods that can irritate the broken skin. Evaluate the child's environment for potentially harmful substances. Seek medical help if the licking continues. (ref 3, page 28 "therapy") (ref 7, page 365)

When To See The Doctor

Vitamin deficiencies can be serious, so it is a good idea to consult a doctor if your child has a licking habit. Licking the lips can lead to a skin infection. Licking objects can lead to poison ingestion, choking, or intestinal obstructions. A doctor can assess why the child is licking, if any vitamins are lacking, and if there are other medical concerns. Vitamin replacement and other interventions can stop the licking habit before it leads to complications. (ref 2, page 183) (ref 8, last paragraph page 407)

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