What Is Severe Malnutrition?

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  • Written By: Jennifer Long
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2019
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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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Post 3

I think we need to do something about mistreatment and negligence of the elderly in the U.S. Some elderly live alone but cannot prepare meals for themselves and end up not eating much. Other times, someone is caring for them but withhold food to prevent diarrhea. Many end up malnourished and it weakens their immune system and makes them even more susceptible to infections. It's very sad.

Post 2

@serenesurface-- Yea, I think this is the image that comes to mind for most people when they think of the word malnutrition. It's really the best example of severe, persistent and long-term malnutrition. But malnourished people don't all look this way.

There are really different forms of malnutrition and different stages. Someone living in a developed country and eating only fast food will have malnutrition as well. And individual may be overweight and malnourished at the same time. Malnourished doesn't necessarily mean that the person is starving or not getting enough food, although this is probably the case for severe malnutrition. But malnourished may also mean that the person is getting enough food to survive (or in some cases, more than enough), but he or she is not getting all of the nutrients, vitamins and minerals required by the body.

So preventing malnutrition isn't just about eating enough, it's also about eating right and eating a balanced diet.

Post 1

When I was young, I used to see documentaries on television about malnourished children in Africa. I was always surprised by the appearance of these children. I could not understand why they had a large stomach despite struggling against starvation. They had extremely thin arms and legs, and heads too large for their body. I learned when I was older that their stomachs were actually swollen and that this is a consequence of starvation and malnutrition.

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