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Signs and symptoms

General malnutrition often develops slowly, over months or years. As the body’s store of nutrients is depleted, changes begin to happen at the cellular level, affecting biochemical processes and decreasing the body’s ability to fight infections. Over time, a variety of symptoms may begin to emerge depending on the particular nutrient deficiency, including:

  • Weight loss, decreased muscle mass, decreased subcutaneous fat and weakness
  • Growth retardation or failure to thrive (in children)
  • Oedema (swelling, due to lack of protein)
  • Poor wound healing
  • Anaemia (iron deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency)
  • Dry, scaly skin
  • Hair loss
  • Brittle and malformed (spooned) nails (iron deficiency)
  • Chronic diarrhoea
  • Bone and joint pain
  • Mental changes such as confusion and irritability
  • Goitre (enlarged thyroid)

Specific nutrient deficiencies may cause characteristic symptoms. For instance, vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to tingling, numbness and burning in the hands and feet (due to nerve damage), a lack of vitamin A may cause night blindness and an increased sensitivity to light, and a lack of vitamin D can cause bone pain and malformation. The severity of symptoms depends on the intensity and duration of the deficiency. Some changes, such as to bone and nerves, may be irreversible.

Last Review Date: September 5, 2017