What is kwashiorkor?

Kwashiorkor is a type of malnutrition that is rare in the United States; it is most common in areas of drought and famine. Kwashiorkor is due to inadequate protein in the diet despite an adequate caloric intake. Symptoms may include irritability and fatigue followed by slowed growth, weight loss, muscle wasting, generalized swelling, skin changes, enlargement of the liver and abdomen, and weakening of the immune system, leading to frequent infections. Once kwashiorkor develops, some of the effects, such as short stature and intellectual disability, cannot be corrected.

Children are affected by kwashiorkor more frequently than adults. It typically starts after the child has been weaned and breast milk has been replaced with a diet low in protein, although it can occur in infants if the mother is protein-deprived. Kwashiorkor can also occur due to parasites and infections that can interfere with nutritional status. Low protein diets associated with dietary changes due to milk allergies in infants, fad diets, poor nutritional education, or a chaotic home life, are other causes of kwashiorkor.

Kwashiorkor can be prevented by including foods in your diet that are rich in proteins, such as meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, soy, and beans. Treatment involves slow increases in calories from carbohydrates, sugars, and fats, followed by protein. Vitamin and mineral supplements and enzymes to help digest dairy products are often needed. Treatment also involves correction of any fluid and electrolyte imbalances and treatment of any infections.

Although kwashiorkor is not common in the United States, protein deficiency can occur with prolonged hospitalization or in nursing home residents. It is estimated that up to half of the elderly living in nursing homes have diets low in protein (Source: PubMedHealth).

Left untreated, kwashiorkor can cause life-threatening shock and coma. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as profuse sweating, bluish coloration of the lips or fingernails, chest pain, cold and clammy skin, rapid or shallow breathing, rapid heart rate (tachycardia), weakness, decreased or absent urine output, fever, unusual anxiety, or confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment. Seek prompt medical care if any symptoms of kwashiorkor occur.

SYMPTOMS

What are the symptoms of kwashiorkor?

Early symptoms of kwashiorkor include irritability and fatigue. As the condition continues, additional symptoms include slowed growth, weight loss, muscle wasting, generalized swelling, skin changes, enlargement of the liver and abdomen, and weakening of the immune system, leading to frequent infections.... Read more about kwashiorkorsymptoms

CAUSES

What causes kwashiorkor?

Kwashiorkor is caused by a diet low in protein. It can also arise due to infections, parasites, or other conditions that interfere with protein absorption from the gastrointestinal tract. It is most common in children living in areas hit by drought and famine, but it can be related to dietary changes due to milk allergies in infants, fad diets, poor nutritional education, or a chaotic home life.... Read more about kwashiorkorcauses

TREATMENTS

How is kwashiorkor treated?

Treatment of kwashiorkor depends upon its severity. Fluid and electrolyte imbalances may need to be corrected with intravenous fluids, and infections may require treatment with antibiotics.... Read more about kwashiorkortreatments

Medical Reviewer: All content has been reviewed by board-certified physicians under the direction of Rich Klasco, M.D., FACEP. Last Annual Review Date: May 2, 2011 Copyright: © Copyright 2011 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Food, Nutrition and Diet