Risks for underweight children

Written by yasmeen noor
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Risks for underweight children
Every six seconds, a child dies from malnutrition and related causes, reports KidsHealth. (child image by kolesn from Fotolia.com)

According to KidsHealth, 27 per cent of children under 5 years old are underweight. If your child is underweight because they are not eating, this could lead to malnutrition and other related health problems like stunted growth. Educate yourself on the health risks and symptoms associated with being underweight so that you can better identify when to take your child to a doctor.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines an underweight child as one whose body mass is lower than that of the fifth percentile for the child's age. Doctors measure body mass using a child's body mass index, which considers how much body weight a child has in proportion to his weight. Children are underweight if their body mass is in the bottom 5 per cent for children of their height.

Low Immunity

According to the World Health Organization, underweight children can face lower immune function than those of normal body weight. This can make them vulnerable to sickness and cause their wounds to heal slower, putting them at a higher risk of developing infections. Underweight children are at an increased risk of mortality from illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia, particularly in environments where they have less access to basic health care and hygiene. These risks are not exclusive to children who are severely underweight; even moderately underweight children face these dangers.

Iron Deficiency and Anemia

Iron deficiency anaemia (IDA), a lack of iron that results in a deficiency of haemoglobin and red blood cells in the blood, can occur from malnutrition in children. Poverty often causes IDA because those living below the poverty level often do not have access to iron-rich foods, reports WHO. KidsHealth indicates that children with IDA suffer from decreased oxygen in the body, lethargy, fatigue and dizziness.


WHO also notes that underweight children may face long-term developmental deficits due to a lack of important nutrients. Underweight children may have decreased calcium, putting them at risk for osteoporosis. Iodine deficiencies put underweight children at risk for mental retardation and brain damage. A lack of vitamin A can cause visual impairment and growth issues, and a zinc deficiency can cause lower respiratory tract infections and a greater susceptibility to malaria and diarrheal disease.

Other Considerations

KidsHealth reports that a child who is underweight may be showing symptoms of another illness, such as diabetes, an eating disorder, a sensory processing disorder or another medical condition that makes eating or digestion difficult. In many cases, however, a child may be slightly underweight because of a growth spurt, increased athletic activity, or a propensity for lower weights in his or her family. Only a medical professional can properly diagnose if the child is actually facing any health issues. Immediate medical consideration should particularly be given to children who have recently suffered a large decrease in weight, have vomiting issues, have trouble gaining weight or have diarrhoea or consistently low energy levels.

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