What causes weight loss?
Weight loss as a symptom can be caused by diseases affecting almost any part of the body, including ongoing infections, AIDS, cancers, depression, painful mouth sores, missing teeth, chronic liver disease, kidney disease, respiratory disease, hypothyroidism, heart disease, and chronic diarrhea or other digestive disorders. Weight loss can also be caused by loss of appetite due to dementia or by certain eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia.
Some drugs can cause abnormal weight loss as well. Rapid or persistent weight loss is very dangerous, can cause severe damage to multiple systems, and should always be investigated as soon as possible.
Gastrointestinal causes of weight loss
Weight loss may be caused by digestive or gastrointestinal system disorders including:
- Cancers of the gastrointestinal tract
- Celiac disease (severe sensitivity to gluten from wheat and other grains that causes intestinal damage)
- Chronic diarrhea
- Gastrointestinal infection
- Inflammatory bowel disease (includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)
- Malabsorption syndrome
- Peptic ulcer
Endocrinologic causes of weight loss
Weight loss can also be caused by endocrine or hormonal disorders including:
- Addison’s disease (disease characterized by underactive adrenal glands)
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
Other causes of weight loss
Weight loss may also be caused by other conditions including:
- Adrenal insufficiency
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Certain medications
- Congestive heart failure
- Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia
- Kidney disease
- Lead exposure
Questions for diagnosing the cause of weight loss
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your weight loss including:
- How much weight have you lost? Over what period of time?
- Have you had any vomiting, diarrhea, or other digestive symptoms?
- What other health problems do you have?
- Have you been depressed or anxious about anything?
- Do you have any other symptoms?
- What medications are you taking?
- Do you use any street drugs, drink alcohol, or smoke?
What are the potential complications of weight loss?
Because weight loss can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:
- Bone loss or weakening
- Cachexia or wasting syndrome
- Organ failure
- Spread of cancer
- Spread of infection
- Weight loss - unintentional. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003107.htm.
- Appetite - decreased. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003121.htm.
- Kahan S, Miller R, Smith EG (Eds.). In A Page Signs & Symptoms, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2009.
- Ferri FF. Ferri’s Differential Diagnosis, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier, 2011.
- Vanderschueren S, Geens E, Knockaert D, Bobbaers H. The diagnostic spectrum of unintentional weight loss. Eur J Intern Med 2005; 16:160.
- McMinn J, Steel C, Bowman A. Investigation and management of unintentional weight loss in older adults. BMJ 2011; 342:d1732.
What is weight loss?
Weight loss as a symptom is any loss of weight that you cannot explain, or that you did not plan or work for through increased diet control and exercise. Weight loss as a symptom can be caused by diseases affecting almost any part of the body, including ongoing infections, AIDS, cancers, depression, painful mouth sores... Read more about weight lossintroduction
What other symptoms might occur with weight loss?
Weight loss may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect digestion may also involve other body systems.
Gastrointestinal symptoms that may occur along with weight lossWeight loss may accompany symptoms affecting the digestive system including:
- Abdominal bloa... Read more about weight losssymptoms