What Is Severe Malnutrition?

Children in underdeveloped countries often face starvation.
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  • Written By: Jennifer Long
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 27 March 2014
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Severe malnutrition, also known as severe acute malnutrition, is a condition that is brought on by starvation. It is most often found in children who live in underdeveloped or poorly developed countries. In some cases, malnutrition also occurs in developed countries, including the United States, and is found in children and senior citizens. Categorized as both a social and medical disorder, severe acute malnutrition can be recognized by the occurrence of several symptoms, most notably a large amount of weight loss, and requires immediate medical attention.

Underdeveloped countries, such as Algeria and Cambodia, pose a serious risk to children as severe malnutrition statistics climb. Studies have shown that this dangerous form of malnutrition is responsible for the majority of deaths in children less than the age of five. In these countries, children are already susceptible to serious diseases and infections, but acute malnutrition can make children more susceptible in addition to causing hypothermia despite the hot climates. Immunization is often unavailable or cannot be easily accessed. Food can be scarce, or parents may not be educated enough to understand the basic nutritional needs of growing children.


Although underdeveloped countries account for the majority of severe malnutrition cases, developed countries also contribute. Senior citizens, particularly in the United States, are largely at risk, especially if they are under the care of other people. Some caregivers are intentionally negligent and withhold food, while others may find that an elderly patient refuses to eat. For children who suffer from this type of malnutrition, neglect is common, but poverty and illness are also contributing factors.

There are a few telltale symptoms of severe malnutrition. The main symptom is dangerously low weight. On its own, low weight does not always mean the patient is malnourished. When combined with hypoglycemia, hypothermia, and a swollen abdomen, however, doctors can confidently reach a malnourished diagnosis. Treatment occurs slowly in ten phases.

The first six phases deal with treating the problems that are caused by severe malnutrition. Hypoglycemia, a common condition that occurs from improper nutritional maintenance, causes low sugar levels in the blood. Hypothermia causes the body's core temperature to drop, which can lead to organ damage. Dehydration is a lack of water in the body and can lead to an imbalance of electrolytes. Infections can wreak havoc on a person whose immune system is weakened because of nutritional deficiencies.

Following treatment during the first six phases, the final four phases can begin and often require long-term care. Proper feeding regimens begin, and portions are gradually increased to allow the patient's stomach and digestive system time to adjust. Through feeding, growth and weight increases occur. Due to the social aspects of severe malnutrition, patients may also need emotional support and sensory stimulation therapy. Finally, a follow-up care regimen is established when the patient has reached a goal point established by doctors.

Severe malnutrition is more dangerous than many people realize, especially for young children and the elderly. Young children have higher nutritional needs because their bodies and brains are still developing. Senior citizens require proper nutrition to prevent their bodies from shutting down. Without the nutrients required, severe acute malnutrition can lead to death if left untreated.


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