Symptoms of malnutrition

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Malnutrition results from a diet deficient in vital nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Over long term or even over a short term this may lead to severe debility and damage to the vital functions of the body. 1-7

Symptoms of malnutrition are easily distinguishable among both adults and children. They may be outlined as follows.

Symptoms of malnutrition in adults

The most common symptom is a notable weight loss. For example, those who have lost more than 10% of their body weight in the course of three months and are not dieting could be malnourished.

This is usually measured using the body mass index or the BMI. This is calculated by the weight in kilograms divided by the height in metres squared. A healthy BMI for adults usually lies between 18.5 and 24.9.

Those with a BMI between 17 and 18.5 could be mildly malnourished, those with BMIs between 16 and 18 could be moderately malnourished and those with a BMI less than 16 could be severely malnourished.

Other symptoms include:

  • Weakness of muscles and fatigue. The muscles of the body appear to waste away and may be left without adequate strength to carry out daily activities.

  • Many people complain of tiredness all day and lack of energy. This may also be due to anemia caused by malnutrition.

  • Increased susceptibility to infections.

  • Delayed and prolonged healing of even small wounds and cuts.

  • Irritability and dizziness

  • Skin and hair becomes dry. Skin may appear dry, and flaky and hair may turn dry, lifeless, dull and appear like straw. Nails may appear brittle and break easily.

  • Some patients suffer from persistent diarrhea or long term constipation.

  • Menstruation may be irregular or stop completely in malnourished women.

  • Depression is common in malnutrition. This could be both a cause as well as an effect of malnutrition.

Symptoms of malnutrition in children

Symptoms of malnutrition in children include:

  • Growth failure. This may be manifested as failure to grow at a normal expected rate in terms of weight, height or both

  • Irritability, sluggishness and excessive crying along with behavioral changes like anxiety, attention deficit are common in children with malnutrition.

  • The skin becomes dry and flaky and hair may turn dry, dull and straw like in appearance. In addition, there may be hair loss as well.

  • Muscle wasting and lack of strength in the muscles. Limbs may appear stick like.

  • Swelling of the abdomen and legs. The abdomen is swollen because of lack of strength of the muscles of the abdomen. This causes the contents of the abdomen to bulge out making the abdomen swollen. Legs are swollen due to edema. This is caused due to lack of vital nutrients. These two symptoms are seen in children with severe malnutrition.

  • There are classically two types of protein energy malnutrition (PEM) in children. These are Marasmus and Kwashorkor.

  • In Marasmus there may be obvious weight loss with muscle wasting. There is little or no fat beneath the skin. The skin folds are thin and the face appears pinched like an old man or monkey. Hair is sparse or brittle.

  • In Kwashirkor the child is between 1 and 2 with hair changing color to a listless red, grey or blonde. Face appears round with swollen abdomen and legs. Skin is dry and dark with splits or stretch marks like streaks where stretched.

  • In nutritional dwarfism the patient appears stunted in growth.

Symptoms of a lack of vitamins

Lack of vitamins and minerals – Some patients have a malnutrition with lack of only the vital micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. These are manifested by symptoms such as:

  • Normal BMI

  • Skin and hair problems

  • Swelling of the tongue

  • Sores around the corners of the mouth

  • Poor vision at night or in dimly lit areas

  • Breathlessness

  • Tinnitus or buzzing or ringing in the ears

  • Anemia

  • Pain in the bones and joints

Reviewed by , BA Hons (Cantab)

Further Reading

Last Updated: Sep 9, 2012

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