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Medically reviewed by Last updated on Sep 3, 2023.

What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition occurs when you do not get enough calories or nutrients to keep you healthy. Nutrients include protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.

What increases my risk for malnutrition?

  • Not eating the right amount or kinds of food
  • Not being able to digest and absorb nutrients properly
  • A health condition that increases the amount of calories your body needs
  • Pregnancy
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia
  • Drug or alcohol abuse

What are the signs and symptoms of malnutrition?

  • Irritable (bad mood) and tired
  • Slower growth than normal, or no growth (in children)
  • Weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Slow wound healing and an increase in infections
  • Bone or joint pain, weak muscles, or sunken temples
  • Brittle and spooned nails
  • Dry, scaly skin or change in skin color
  • Change of hair color, or hair loss
  • Bloated abdomen and swelling in other parts of the body

How is malnutrition diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you and check your height and weight. He or she may ask you questions about your health and the medicines that you take. He or she may also ask what you eat to find out if you are getting enough calories and nutrients. Your provider may also do blood tests to find out if your body is low in certain nutrients.

How is malnutrition treated?

Treatment depends on what caused your malnutrition. You may need medicine to treat a health problem that is causing your malnutrition.

  • Increased calories and nutrients will be needed. A dietitian may help you plan larger, healthy meals. If you have trouble eating larger meals, eat small meals throughout the day. You may need to include snacks between meals. You may need to eat or drink a nutrition supplement if you have trouble eating the right kinds and amounts of food.
  • Vitamins and minerals may be needed to replace vitamins and minerals your body needs. They may be given in your IV, as a shot, or as a pill.
  • Appetite stimulants are medicines that help improve your appetite so you will want to eat more.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) for any of the following:

  • You have pain in your chest, back, neck, jaw, stomach, or down one or both arms.
  • You have shortness of breath.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You lose a large amount of weight within a short amount of time.
  • You feel depressed, confused, tired, irritable, and you do not feel like eating.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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