Malnutrition: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

picture of malnutrition

What is Malnutrition?

A malnourished person finds that their body has difficulty doing normal things such as growing and resisting disease. Physical work becomes problematic and even learning abilities can be diminished. For women, pregnancy becomes risky and they cannot be sure of producing nourishing breast milk.

When a person is not getting enough food or not getting the right sort of food, malnutrition is just around the corner. Even if people get enough to eat, they will become malnourished if the food they eat does not provide the proper amounts of micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – to meet daily nutritional requirements.

Disease and malnutrition are closely linked. Sometimes disease is the result of malnutrition, sometimes it is a contributing cause. In fact, malnutrition is the largest single contributor to disease in the world, according to the UN’s Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN).

Malnutrition at an early age leads to reduced physical and mental development during childhood. Stunting, for example, affects more than 147 million pre-schoolers in developing countries, according to SCN’s World Nutrition Situation 5th report. Iodine deficiency, the same report shows, is the world’s greatest single cause of mental retardation and brain damage.

Undernutrition affects school performance and studies have shown it often leads to a lower income as an adult. It also causes women to give birth to low birth-weight babies.

Symptoms of Malnutrition

A symptom is something the patient feels and reports, while a sign is something other people, such as the doctor detect. For example, pain may be a symptom while a rash may be a sign.

Signs and symptoms of malnutrition (subnutrition) include:5

  • Loss of fat (adipose tissue)
  • Breathing difficulties, a higher risk of respiratory failure
  • Depression
  • Higher risk of complications after surgery
  • Higher risk of hypothermia – abnormally low body temperature
  • The total number of some types of white blood cells falls; consequently, the immune system is weakened, increasing the risk of infections.
  • Higher susceptibility to feeling cold
  • Longer healing times for wounds
  • Longer recover times from infections
  • Longer recovery from illnesses
  • Lower sex drive
  • Problems with fertility
  • Reduced muscle mass
  • Reduced tissue mass
  • Tiredness, fatigue, or apathy
  • Irritability.

In more severe cases:

  • Skin may become thin, dry, inelastic, pale, and cold
  • Eventually, as fat in the face is lost, the cheeks look hollow and the eyes sunken
  • Hair becomes dry and sparse, falling out easily
  • Sometimes, severe malnutrition may lead to unresponsiveness (stupor)
  • If calorie deficiency continues for long enough, there may be heart, liver and respiratory failure
  • Total starvation is said to be fatal within 8 to 12 weeks (no calorie consumption at all).

Children

Children who are severely malnourished typically experience slow behavioral development, even mental retardation may occur. Even when treated, undernutrition may have long-term effects in children, with impairments in mental function and digestive problems persisting in some cases for the rest of their lives.

Causes of Malnutrition

There are many types of malnutrition, and they have different causes. Some causes include:

  • Poor diet
  • Starvation due to food not being available
  • Eating disorders
  • Problems with digesting food or absorbing nutrients from food
  • Certain medical conditions that make a person unable to eat

You may develop malnutrition if you lack a single vitamin in your diet. Lacking a vitamin or other nutrient is called a deficiency.

Sometimes malnutrition is very mild and causes no symptoms. Other times it can be so severe that the damage it does to the body is permanent, even though you survive.

Poverty, natural disasters, political problems, and war can all contribute to malnutrition and starvation, and not just in developing countries.

Some health conditions that are related to malnutrition are:

  • Malabsorption
  • Hunger
  • Beriberi
  • Binge eating
  • Deficiency – Vitamin A
  • Deficiency – Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
  • Deficiency – Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
  • Deficiency – Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
  • Deficiency – Vitamin B9 (folacin)
  • Deficiency – Vitamin E
  • Deficiency – Vitamin K
  • Eating disorders
  • Kwashiorkor
  • Megaloblastic anemia
  • Pellagra
  • Rickets
  • Scurvy
  • Spina bifida

Malnutrition is a significant problem all over the world, especially among children. It is very harmful to children because it affects brain development and other growth. Children who suffer from malnutrition may have lifelong problems.

Treating Malnutrition

Depending on what’s caused a person to become malnourished and how severe it is, treatment may be carried out at home or in hospital.

Dietary changes are the main treatment for malnutrition. If you’re undernourished, you may need to increase the nutritional content of your food, with or without taking nutritional supplements.

If you’re unable to eat enough to meet your nutritional needs you may need:

  • a feeding tube to provide nutrients directly into your digestive system
  • a drip to provide nutrients and fluids directly into a vein

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