What is poor appetite?
Poor appetite is a common symptom of advanced age, cancer (especially of the colon, ovary or pancreas), chronic disease, or medication side effects. The first trimester of pregnancy is commonly associated with poor appetite that may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. The medical term for poor appetite is anorexia. Poor appetite results from a decrease in the desire to eat. It may occur in conditions affecting the digestive system or along with more generalized conditions, such as infection, dehydration, or chronic disease.
Medications, such as antibiotics, chemotherapy, and narcotics, are common causes of poor appetite. Chronic diseases, including heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis), hepatitis, and kidney failure, can all lead to poor appetite. Changes to the sensations of smell or taste can result in poor appetite. Depending on the cause, poor appetite can come and go or be constant.
Poor appetite rarely leads to a life-threatening condition. However, poor appetite can be associated with dehydration that, left untreated, can result in electrolyte imbalance, shock, or coma. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms of severe dehydration, such as confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment, cold skin, or reduced urine output.
If your poor appetite is persistent or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.
What other symptoms might occur with poor appetite?
Poor appetite may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the digestive tract may also involve other body systems.
Digestive system symptoms that may occur along with poor appetite
Poor appetite may accompany other symptoms affecting the digestive system including:
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- Changes in taste or smell
- Chronic or persistent diarrhea
- Nausea with or without vomiting
Other symptoms that may occur along with poor appetite
Poor appetite may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:
- Partial or complete loss of smell
- Cough that gets more severe over time
- Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
- General ill feeling
- Irritability and mood changes
- Malaise or lethargy
- Ongoing low-grade fever
- Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
- Severe fatigue
- Unexplained weight loss
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, poor appetite may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:
What causes poor appetite?
Poor appetite results from a decrease in the desire to eat and is commonly seen in the elderly, whose daily caloric demand decreases with reduced physical activity. Those with cognitive impairment forget to prepare meals. It is not always clear why anorexia occurs but may be due in part to negative emotions, such as anxiety, depression or sadness. Any health condition that interferes with the palatability of food or interferes with the mechanisms of food ingestion can also lead to anorexia.
Different types of cancers, including the illness itself and treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, are a common cause of poor appetite. Chronic conditions, such as heart or kidney failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis), may be accompanied by poor appetite due to difficulty breathing, weakness, and general malaise. Poor appetite is commonly a result of narcotic medications, such as codeine or morphine.
Disease causes of poor appetite
Chronic conditions can cause poor appetite including:
Cancers (ovarian, pancreatic, colon, or stomach, for example)
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis)
Congestive heart failure (deterioration of the heart’s ability to pump blood)
Gallbladder disease such as cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder)
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
Kidney or liver failure
Drug causes of poor appetite
Certain drugs may cause poor appetite including:
Other common causes of poor appetite
Poor appetite can also have other common causes including:
Aging (elderly adults very often have poor appetite)
First trimester of pregnancy
Loss of taste or smell
Nausea with or without vomiting
Negative emotions (anxiety, depression, grief or sadness)
Serious or life-threatening causes of poor appetite
In some cases, poor appetite may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:
Dehydration (loss of body fluids and electrolytes, which can be life threatening when severe and untreated)
Questions for diagnosing the cause of poor appetite
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your poor appetite including:
Do you always feel like your appetite is poor?
Do you have any other symptoms?
How long have you had a poor appetite?
What medications are you taking?
What are the potential complications of poor appetite?
Because poor appetite 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:
Loss of strength
Spread of cancer
Spread of infection