Signs & symptoms of severe malnutrition

Written by tom ryan
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Signs & symptoms of severe malnutrition
(John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Malnutrition is a serious condition that is caused not only by not eating, but by other conditions and diseases. It can be even caused by an unbalanced diet, and in certain groups—like young children or the elderly—it can be especially damaging, if left untreated. Fortunately, there are a number of easily identifiable symptoms that warn of severe malnutrition and its harmful effects.

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Weight Loss

One noticeable sign of malnutrition is unintentional weight loss, particularly of 4.54 Kilogram or more. Malnourished individuals can appear not only significantly skinnier, but also bloated. This is symptomatic of a disorder called Kwashiorkor, a severe protein deficiency.

Skin Problems

Malnourished individuals may experience a number of skin problems—for example, their skin may become thick, dry and pale and bruise easily. They may notice a change in colour or inexplicable rashes. One cause is Pellagra, a Vitamin B3 (Niacin) deficiency.

Hair Symptoms

Hair loss is a common symptom of malnutrition, even just concerning certain vitamin deficiencies. Hair may either fall out on its own or become susceptible to coming out when pulled or brushed. It can also dry out and tightly curl.

Oral Problems

Malnutrition can cause symptoms in the gums, which can become susceptible to bleeding. It can also affect the tongue, which may crack, shrivel up or become inflamed. These symptoms are generally caused by a riboflavin deficiency.

Optic Symptoms

Malnourished individuals can become sensitive to light or experience night blindness. These result from a Vitamin A deficiency caused by severe malnutrition.

Balance Problems

According to the National Institutes of Health, malnutrition can cause balance problems, leaving individuals dizzy. These symptoms may vary, however, with the cause and severity of the malnutrition.


Individuals may experience varying levels of fatigue when suffering from malnutrition. In severe cases, their energy may be easily depleted, rendering them unable to perform daily tasks.

Immune Problems

According to “The New York Times,” malnutrition can result in decreased immune response, leaving malnourished individuals susceptible to viruses and other contagious illnesses—something as simple as the common cold could therefore do more damage, as the individual's immune system is weakened. Scurvy, for example, is an immune disorder caused by a Vitamin C deficiency—it is especially prevalent in people who don't eat fruit.

Signs from Medical Examination

If a doctor suspects malnutrition may be causing a patient's symptoms, she will likely order blood work and a nutritional assessment to determine the level of severity.

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