Navigate Up

Women's Center - A-Z Index

#
Y

Print This Page

Kwashiorkor

Kwashiorkor is a form of malnutrition that occurs when there is not enough protein in the diet.

Alternative Names

Protein malnutrition; Protein-calorie malnutrition; Malignant malnutrition

Causes

Kwashiorkor is most common in areas where there is:

  • Famine
  • Limited food supply
  • Low levels of education (when people do not understand how to eat a proper diet)

This disease is more common in very poor countries. It often occurs during a drought or other natural disaster, or during political unrest. These conditions are responsible for a lack of food, which leads to malnutrition.

Kwashiorkor is very rare in children in the United States. There are only isolated cases. However, one government estimate suggests that as many as 50% of elderly people in nursing homes in the United States do not get enough protein in their diet.

When kwashiorkor does occur in the United States, it is usually a sign of child abuse and severe neglect.

Symptoms

  • Changes in skin pigment
  • Decreased muscle mass
  • Diarrhea
  • Failure to gain weight and grow
  • Fatigue
  • Hair changes (change in color or texture)
  • Increased and more severe infections due to damaged immune system
  • Irritability
  • Large belly that sticks out (protrudes)
  • Lethargy or apathy
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Rash (dermatitis)
  • Shock (late stage)
  • Swelling (edema )

Exams and Tests

The physical examination may show an enlarged liver (hepatomegaly ) and general swelling.

Tests may include:

Treatment

Getting more calories and protein will correct kwashiorkor, if treatment is started early enough. However, children who have had this condition will never reach their full potential for height and growth.

Treatment depends on the severity of the condition. People who are in shock need immediate treatment to restore blood volume and maintain blood pressure.

Calories are given first in the form of carbohydrates , simple sugars , and fats. Proteins are started after other sources of calories have already provided energy. Vitamin and mineral supplements are essential.

Since the person will have been without much food for a long period of time, eating can cause problems, especially if the calories are too high at first. Food must be reintroduced slowly. Carbohydrates are given first to supply energy, followed by protein foods.

Many malnourished children will develop intolerance to milk sugar (lactose intolerance ). They will need to be given supplements with the enzyme lactase so that they can tolerate milk products.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Getting treatment early generally leads to good results. Treating kwashiorkor in its late stages will improve the child's general health. However, the child may be left with permanent physical and mental problems. If treatment is not given or comes too late, this condition is life-threatening.

Possible Complications

  • Coma
  • Permanent mental and physical disability
  • Shock

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if your child has symptoms of kwashiorkor.

Prevention

To prevent kwashiorkor, make sure the diet has enough carbohydrates, fat (at least 10% of total calories), and protein (12% of total calories).

References

Heird WC. Food insecurity, hunger, and undernutrition. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 43.

Alderman H, Shekar M. Nutrition, food security, and health. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 43.

Updated: 2/26/2014

Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


©  UPMC | Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
Supplemental content provided by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions. All rights reserved.

For help in finding a doctor or health service that suits your needs, call the UPMC Referral Service at 412-647-UPMC (8762) or 1-800-533-UPMC (8762). Select option 1.

UPMC is an equal opportunity employer. UPMC policy prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, genetics, sexual orientation, marital status, familial status, disability, veteran status, or any other legally protected group status. Further, UPMC will continue to support and promote equal employment opportunity, human dignity, and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. This policy applies to admissions, employment, and access to and treatment in UPMC programs and activities. This commitment is made by UPMC in accordance with federal, state, and/or local laws and regulations.

Medical information made available on UPMC.com is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely entirely on this information for your health care needs. Ask your own doctor or health care provider any specific medical questions that you have. Further, UPMC.com is not a tool to be used in the case of an emergency. If an emergency arises, you should seek appropriate emergency medical services.

For UPMC Mercy Patients: As a Catholic hospital, UPMC Mercy abides by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, as determined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. As such, UPMC Mercy neither endorses nor provides medical practices and/or procedures that contradict the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

© UPMC
Pittsburgh, PA, USA UPMC.com