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Malnutrition

Malnutrition is the condition that occurs when your body does not get enough nutrients.

Alternative Names

Nutrition - inadequate

Causes

There are a number of causes of malnutrition. It may result from:

  • Inadequate or unbalanced diet
  • Problems with digestion or absorption
  • Certain medical conditions

Malnutrition can occur if you do not eat enough food. Starvation is a form of malnutrition.

You may develop malnutrition if you lack of a single vitamin in the diet.

In some cases, malnutrition is very mild and causes no symptoms. However, sometimes it can be so severe that the damage done to the body is permanent, even though you survive.

Malnutrition continues to be a significant problem all over the world, especially among children. Poverty, natural disasters, political problems, and war all contribute to conditions -- even epidemics -- of malnutrition and starvation, and not just in developing countries.

Related topics:

Symptoms

Symptoms vary and depend on what is causing the malnutrition. However, some general symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, and weight loss.

Exams and Tests

Testing depends on the specific disorder. Most work-ups include nutritional assessments and blood work.

Treatment

Treatment usually consists of replacing missing nutrients, treating symptoms as needed, and treating any underlying medical condition.

Outlook (Prognosis)

The outlook depends on the cause of the malnutrition. Most nutritional deficiencies can be corrected. However, if malnutrition is caused by a medical condition, that illness has to be treated in order to reverse the nutritional deficiency.

Possible Complications

If untreated, malnutrition can lead to mental or physical disability, illness, and possibly death.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Discuss the risk of malnutrition with your health care provider. Treatment is necessary if you or your child have any changes in the body's ability to function. Contact your health care provider if the following symptoms develop:

  • Fainting
  • Lack of menstruation
  • Lack of growth in children
  • Rapid hair loss

Prevention

Eating a good, well-balanced diet helps to prevent most forms of malnutrition.

References

Klein S. Protein-energy malnutrition. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 222.

Alderman H, Shekar M. Nutrition, food security, and health. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. GemeIII JW, Schor NF, Behrman RE, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 43.

Updated: 4/13/2013

Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.


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