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Malnutrition Diseases

Malnutrition Diseases

One of the biggest reasons behind infant mortality is malnutrition. Various malnutrition diseases are plaguing the world today in the wake of food shortage and rampant poverty. Read the following HealthHearty article to know all about different diseases, their symptoms, and treatment options.
Dr. Sumaiya Khan
Last Updated: Apr 23, 2018
Malnutrition is a condition where there is insufficient or inadequate consumption of basic nutrients required by the body which leads to the manifestation of various diseases and disorders. According to the World Health Organization, malnutrition is the biggest contributor to child mortality as it directly or indirectly leads to various deficiency disorders.

So, to deal with this worldwide menace, it is important to know all about the various kinds of diseases caused by malnutrition that exist and the symptoms that they show.

Marasmus is a disease that results from severe deficiency of both proteins and calories found in children. The condition results in overall energy deficiency where an individual looks emaciated and the body weight goes lower than 80% of the normal required weight. The occurrence of this disease is higher in infants below the age of one. This disease is rampant in African countries and certain other Third World countries. In this disease, there is extensive muscle wasting, edema, dry and scaly skin, loose skin, etc. Furthermore, the adipose tissue reserves of the person get severely depleted, especially from the buttocks and thighs. The person is also seen to be very irritable, fretful, and voraciously hungry. The person also becomes very susceptible to contracting infectious diseases which further increases the mortality rate of this disease. The treatment will not only consist of providing the person with all the required nutritional supplements that he/she is deficient of, but will also entail treating dehydration and any other infections that he may be suffering from.


Kwashiorkor is one of the most acute protein malnutrition diseases in the world. It is also said to be a protein-calorie malnutrition similar to marasmus, but what sets it apart is the presence of edema, that is typically seen in the feet. Other signs of this disease include a distended abdomen, an enlarged liver, thinning hair which is normally coarse in texture, loss of teeth, skin depigmentation, and dermatitis. Children suffering from this condition normally end up developing irritability and anorexia as well. Although it was believed for long that this disease was caused by protein deficiency, it is now being said that other factors, like vitamin and mineral deficiency, could also play a very important role in causing this disease. Once again, as is seen in marasmus, due to the severe deficiency of various essential nutrients, the person has an increased susceptibility to contracting diseases and even developing diseases after getting vaccinated for that particular disease.


Anemia is one of the most common diseases caused by malnutrition. Anemia can be caused due to a variety of reasons, but one of the main reasons for anemia is a diet that is deficient in iron and vitamin B12. A diet deficient in iron leads to a type of anemia known as iron deficiency anemia. This kind of anemia is one of the most common diseases in the world and is especially rampant in developing countries. It is also particularly seen in pregnant women in these regions. It leads to various problems like shortness of breath, tiredness, fatigue, pallor, and other symptoms that point towards a low hemoglobin count. Deficiency of vitamin B12 leads to a type of anemia known as megaloblastic anemia.


Goiter is a disease that is mostly caused due to deficiency of iodine in the diet. This leads to typical goiter symptoms like swelling of the thyroid gland which is visible as a large swelling in the neck. Other symptoms present in goiter will be similar to those seen in hypothyroidism like lethargy, weakness, low metabolic rate, increased susceptibility to cold, ptosis, etc. Sometimes, the swelling in the neck may be so large, that it may lead to compression of the windpipe or the larynx which may cause difficulty in breathing and speaking. This disorder is typically seen in countries that have deficient iodine in their soil, or in countries where the food supplements available are not iodized. Goiter treatment will depend on the size and cause of goiter. If the swelling is small and is only due to slight iodine insufficiency, then providing iodine supplements can help treat the disorder. However, if the swelling is large and is causing pressure on the windpipe or larynx, then it is best to do an emergency partial or complete thyroidectomy, depending on the case.


Hyponatremia is a condition caused due to deficiency of sodium in the blood and diet. This is a serious type of electrolyte disturbance that is normally seen in people who have high levels of antidiuretic hormone. In this disease, the concentration of sodium in the plasma is less than 135 mEq/L. This condition is often seen as a result of a complication of some other serious medical illness, like diarrhea, excessive vomiting, polydipsia, etc. Typical symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headache, etc. If the symptoms are not treated in time and worsen further, there may even be mental clouding, confusion, convulsions, stupor. and the person may even eventually go into coma. The treatment for this disease depends on the underlying cause. In cases of severe volume depletion, there may be need of intravenous administration of saline. Serious symptoms like seizures normally require treatment using hypertonic saline.


The condition that is caused due to deficiency of potassium in the diet is known as hypokalemia. Normally, for the symptoms to start showing, there needs to be not only insufficient consumption of potassium but also excessive loss of potassium from the body. Thus, hypokalemia is often seen as a complication of dehydration or diarrhea and malnutrition. The signs and symptoms of hypokalemia include myalgia, muscle cramps, tetany, slight change in blood pressure, constipation, etc. Serious effects of hypokalemia include respiratory depression and cardiac arrhythmias. The most important approach to treat this disease is to include foods high in potassium in the diet. If the person is also suffering from dehydration or diarrhea, then he will need fluid replenishment and treatment with antibiotics as well.

Vitamin Deficiency

Vitamin deficiency is also commonly seen in many malnutrition diseases. Given below is a list of the various vitamins and what their deficiency leads to:
Vitamin A: Deficiency of vitamin A is relatively common in developing countries, though it is rarely seen in developed countries. This condition can lead to various vitamin A deficiency symptoms one of the most common ones being night blindness. In fact, night blindness is one of the first signs of vitamin A deficiency and it can even lead to complete blindness if there is severe depletion in the levels of vitamin A, thus, making blindness due to vitamin A deficiency a leading cause of blindness in malnourished children the world over. Other symptoms seen due to deficiency of vitamin A include increased susceptibility to infections, lack of appetite, dry and rough skin and hair, poor wound healing, increased susceptibility to contracting infections, etc. Vitamin A can be restored in the body with the help of including foods that are rich in vitamin A in the diet.
Vitamin B1: Vitamin B1, or thiamine, is a nutrient that is available in many sources, like yeast and pork, which are obviously a rarity in malnourished environment. One of the most commonly seen thiamine deficiency symptoms includes the manifestation of beriberi. Beriberi is a nervous system disorder, which leads to symptoms like severe lethargy and fatigue, inability to derive energy, difficulty in walking, loss of muscle with muscle wasting and eventual complications of the cardiovascular, nervous, muscular and gastrointestinal systems. Beriberi is also commonly seen in alcoholics. The treatment of beriberi will involve administration of thiamine in the form of thiamine hydrochloride tablets or injections.
Vitamin B2: Riboflavin or vitamin B2 deficiency is normally seen in conjunction with protein-energy malnutrition diseases and is also seen in alcoholics. The signs and symptoms of riboflavin deficiency includes sore throat with swelling and redness of the mouth, cheilosis, angular stomatitis, glossitis, seborrhic dermatitis, etc. Riboflavin deficiency symptoms can be reversed with the help of including foods rich in riboflavin, like meat, eggs, cheese, yogurt, etc.
Vitamin B3: Deficiency of vitamin B3, or niacin, leads to a disease called pellagra. It often results from alterations of protein metabolism in the body. People who have a staple diet of corn also often end up suffering from pellagra. The signs and symptoms of pellagra include photosensitivity, dermatitis, dementia, diarrhea, alopecia, insomnia, weakness, ataxia, etc. Cases of pellagra that are left untreated have a high mortality rate, as the person can die within four to five years of being diagnosed. To prevent this from happening, it is important to include niacin rich foods in the diet.
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 deficiency is one of the most common deficiencies seen in the spectrum of vitamin B deficiencies. Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products, hence, a deficiency of this vitamin is often seen in vegetarians. Signs of B12 deficiency include tingling sensation of tongue, white spots on skin, mouth sores, shortness of breath, memory loss, headaches resembling migraine attacks, etc. However, one of the most important and prominent symptoms of vitamin B12 is megaloblastic anemia. This is the type of anemia where the red blood cells are large and immature in nature.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is a vitamin that is found in citrus fruits. Although an overdose of vitamin C is rare, deficiency of vitamin C is often seen in developing countries. Deficiency of this vitamin leads to a condition known as scurvy. This disease is characterized by symptoms like bleeding gums, delayed wound healing, spots on skin and increased susceptibility to infections. Vitamin C can be obtained by eating fruits like oranges, lemon, lime, grapefruit, etc.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D deficiency normally occurs due to inadequate intake of calcium coupled with inadequate sunlight exposure. Vitamin D deficiency symptoms include impaired bone formation, thus, causing bone softening diseases like osteomalacia. It is also a major contributing factor towards the development of osteoporosis in women living in developing countries. To help prevent this from occurring, one needs to have a diet that is high in calcium and foods with vitamin D.

There are other diseases as well that are not so common, like malnutrition liver disease, which also often may be a culmination of the above mentioned diseases. Hence, perhaps after reading this article, we should learn to be a bit more grateful for the food and other blessings that God has showered us with, as there are worse things happening to better people out there.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.