New York City Woman Addicted to Eating Deodorant

Doctors say people can be addicted to the strangest things: feces, hair, dirt.

BySusan Donaldson James
March 01, 2013, 1:25 PM

March 4, 2012— -- For Nicole, a 19-year-old from New York City, life revolves around her addiction -- she eats deodorant, about a half a stick a day.

"When I wake up in the morning, I want deodorant; after each meal, I eat deodorant; when I get stressed out, I eat deodorant; in the middle of the night when I wake up out of a sleep, I want deodorant," Nicole said on a popular TLC show that aired recently, "My Strange Addiction."

Nicole said that she first started eating deodorant when she was 4 years old, but the habit escalated two years ago into a full-blown addiction.

She takes the cap, scoops a solid, waxy taste from the deodorant stick, and swallows it. She said she prefers certain "rich-tasting" brands over others.

Recently, Nicole discovered that she also likes deodorant spray. "The residue doesn't get stuck on my teeth and it absorbs into my mouth really fast," she said. "The first time my mouth got really numb, but I like the taste."

Nicole did not want to speak to press about her craving for deodorant, but there have clearly been health consequences, including stomach cramps, and her doctor has expressed concerns.

"It gets really sore and my mouth gets really dry," she says on the show. "But at the same time my mouth is watering because I am craving it. I take deodorant everywhere I go."

Deodorant contains aluminum, which her doctor tells her can cause dementia, seizures or even death. But the physical worries are only part of the problem.

"Nicole has a process addiction," according to Mike Dow, author of "Diet Rehab" and TLC's psychologist consultant.

"Many of them fall under the umbrella of impulse control disorders, and some may have elements of OCD, depression and anxiety," he said. "There's no diagnostic billing code for many of these strange addictions."

They can be as powerful as compulsive addictions to shopping and to gambling, he said.

"My brain tells me, 'You have to eat it,'" says Nicole. "I tried giving it up for a week but got really sick and I bad headaches. ... When I realize I'm out of deodorant I panic. My anxiety goes crazy and I get really aggravated. Without it, I'd be a totally different person."

Dow said eating deodorant isn't going to kill Nicole "as fast as heroin."

"But ingesting chemicals and preservatives over the long-term may lead to increased risk of cancer or other digestive disorders," he said. "These addicts often need a wake up call to be confronted with the consequences of their behavior which often helps them to create change."

When people turn to non-food materials, the condition is known as pica. Those eating drywall or toilet paper may have the craving based on a mineral deficiency. But sometimes the behavior then evolves into a way to "self-soothe and manage anxiety," said Dow.

Pica is seen more frequently in young children, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). An estimated 10 to 32 percent of children aged 1 to 6 have these behaviors. The name pica means "magpie" -- Latin for the bird who will eat anything.

Animal feces, clay, ice, paint, sand and hairballs have also been reported, according to NIH. To fit the diagnosis of pica, the patient must have ingested it for at least a month.

Pregnant women can sometimes have odd cravings for non-food objects, such as ashes, laundry starch, hair, coffee grounds, even cigarette butts.

In adulthood, these unusual cravings can be triggered by lack of certain nutrients, such as iron or zinc.

In its current series, "My Strange Addiction" also highlights a woman so addicted to vapor rub that she goes through more than 30 jars, inhalers and patches every week. Another woman eats cat fur, grooming her pet with her own tongue.

In 2011, the series featured Adele Edwards, who ate the inside of sofa cushions, chomping down the foam about 15 times a day.

"I unzip the cushions and snack on the foam inside," she said. "And once I start I just can't stop. But now doctors have told me that if I carry on, my addiction will kill me."

When pica is not caused by an iron deficiency, it is often "a disturbance in the thought process," according to Dr. G. Richard Locke, a gastrologist and motility expert from the Mayo Clinic.

A non-food material could become microscopic and toxins might be absorbed into the system, but most materials small enough to work their way from top to bottom eventually pass.

"It has to get through the intestine," Locke said in an interview about Edwards' addiction to sofa foam. He has treated patients who have swallowed coins and hair balls, among other things.

The digestive tract is "one long tube from the mouth to the bottom," he said. "It's in our body, but not actually in our body. It protects us."

Treatment for these eating behaviors includes first addressing missing nutrients or exposure to toxins like lead. Then, specialists address behavioral and family issues.

"Using behavioral replacement therapy to treat addiction is a clinically effective part of treatment," said psychologist Dow. "This means we help the addict to find healthy habits -- like walking an hour a day or a daily meeting -- to replace the unhealthy addiction like smoking or even eating deodorant."

As for Nicole, at the urging of her boyfriend, she has tried to cut back on eating deodorant. She replaces her craving with eating almonds, but she has not been able fully to give it up.

"It's really soft," she says. "It feels like it melts in my mouth. Deodorant really has a unique taste of its own."

But Dow said that maintaining long-term sobriety is difficult. "It's not easy to give up an addiction that's become part of your daily life."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events