Poor Appetite

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Introduction

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.

Symptoms

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:

Other symptoms that may occur along with poor appetite

Poor appetite may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

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:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
  • Decreased urine output
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Severe dizziness or sudden loss of balance
Causes

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:

Drug causes of poor appetite

Certain drugs may cause poor appetite including:

  • Amphetamines

  • Antibiotics

  • Chemotherapy drugs

  • Cocaine

  • Codeine

  • Heroin

  • Radiation therapy

Other common causes of poor appetite

Poor appetite can also have other common causes including:

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)

  • Kidney failure

  • Liver failure

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

  • Malnutrition

  • Spread of cancer

  • Spread of infection

  • Vitamin deficiencies

  • Wasting syndrome

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 21
  1. Appetite - decreased. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003121.htm
  2. Poor Appetite. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/eating-problems/poor-appetite.html
  3. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.
  4. Ferri FF. Ferri’s Differential Diagnosis, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier, 2011.
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