Recognizing the symptoms of starvation is usually a matter of learning to identify the many ways in which the condition can affect a person or animal. For many, the most obvious sign of starvation is an emaciated, bone-thin body; starving children often have bulging and distended abdomens, too. These physical symptoms usually only come once starvation has been going on for a very long time, though. In most cases, the body does all it can to preserve itself and only wastes away as a last resort. To see starvation before it becomes truly dire you’ll also need to watch for mental and behavioral changes, including increased irritability and a difficulty focusing for prolonged periods. A number of physiological symptoms are common, too, including circulatory problems that can lead a person to constantly feel cold. Starvation also tends to weaken the immune response and sufferers are likely to become sick more easily and stay sick longer than they would if they had proper nourishment.
The Basics of Starvation
From a medical standpoint, starvation is a diagnosable condition that stems from a prolonged lack of essential nutrients. It usually takes a long time to develop, and is a lot bigger than temporary hunger. People aren’t usually truly starving unless they’ve gone for weeks or longer without access to adequate nutrition. The “adequate” is key here, since many clinically starving people and animals are actually eating — they just aren’t eating the foods they need to properly fuel their bodies. A child who eats only cereal can be starving even though he’s eating at regular intervals; the same is true of an adult who consumes only a small bit of rice or leafy greens each day. Having enough food to stay alive and having enough to really be healthy and grow properly are different things in this context.
Mental and Behavioral Consequences
Some of the first symptoms you may notice impact behavior and mental acuity. The most notable tend to be irritability, lethargy, and difficulty paying attention. People who are starving are often preoccupied with thoughts of food and have very little ability to stay focused on a task; they also usually grow tired and listless very easily. The combination of distractibility and lack of energy can produce irritability, particularly in children.
Once starvation really begins to set it, physiological symptoms typically appear. The timing on this can vary depending on individual strength, age, and size, but is usually anywhere from a few day to a few weeks in. The starvation victim’s cardiovascular system will likely become impaired by the lack of vitamins and minerals, and the blood pressure will drop as a result. Decreased blood pressure will reduce circulation and make the person feel cold in situations where others are not cold; he or she will usually also have cold hands and feet. Starving people may also complain of dizziness, appear lightheaded upon standing, or faint at seemingly random intervals. Diminished circulation will eventually cause the hands, feet, and ankles to swell.
Muscular Diminishment and Physical Wasting
One of the most obvious things you’ll usually notice is changes in the starvation victim’s body. Prolonged malnourishment cause the victim to become extremely thin; bones will typically protrude through the skin, muscles will waste away, and the belly may become distended. Other symptoms of starvation are dry, scaly skin, slow growing nails that split or break easily, and limp, thin hair. In addition, gums will bleed easily and teeth will often become severely decayed.
Decreased Immune Response
There are also a number of less obvious symptoms of starvation to watch for. Wound healing and immune responses in a famished body are often compromised, for instance, since these functions are usually judged by the brain to be a low physiological priority, at least when basic survival is on the line. As a result, you may see sluggish wound healing, persistent skin sores or rashes, and long-lasting infections.
The rapid weight loss that accompanies starvation can produce gallstones and the problems that go with that condition, including pain in the right shoulder, on the back, on the top right side of the belly, and near the breastbone. Malnourished people with gallstones will frequently touch, press, or rub these areas. Starvation and poor nutrition can also cause irregular or absent menstrual cycles in women.
Treating starvation isn’t always as easy as it seems. People who have been without food for a long time often aren’t able to handle large amounts of nutrition at once, and in many cases big meals can actually make things worse. In most cases, small, frequent, well-balanced meals need to be gradually introduced to allow the stomach and body to begin to processing food again. Eventually, larger meals and snacks that are high in calories and protein can be routinely administered.
Vitamin and mineral supplementation can begin once a person is able to tolerate regular food again. It is often helpful to assess the extent of the malnourishment and monitor improvement by making a baseline record of weight; if you the have the ability, running blood tests to check deficiencies and using computed tomography scans to review any organ damage can be very helpful when it comes both to assessing the damage and making a plan for moving forward.