Everyone now and then experiences a temporary loss of appetite. Stress, anxiety, fear, excitement, and emotional conflicts are among the many factors that can depress a person's appetite. Almost any illness, ranging from the common cold to cancer and other potentially fatal diseases, can cause loss of appetite, as can smoking, alcohol, and many medications. The appetite usually returns when the illness abates, but persistent loss of appetite can be a warning sign of a serious underlying disease.
Causes of appetite loss
AIDS can affect virtually every organ system, producing a wide variety of symptoms. Loss of appetite and wasting, often accompanied by chronic fever, severe gastrointestinal upset, and unremitting diarrhea, are among the most common symptoms.
There are many kinds of anemia, but all are characterized by reduced or abnormal hemoglobin, the blood component that carries oxygen to all parts of the body. Fatigue, loss of appetite, and shortness of breath are among the more common symptoms.
Almost all advanced cancers result in loss of appetite and wasting. In some, however, loss of appetite may be one of the early warning symptoms. For example, leukemia and cancers of the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder can cause loss of appetite in their early stages. Some cancers, such as those of the mouth, throat, and esophagus, either alter taste or cause difficulty in eating. And many cancer treatments, especially radiation and chemotherapy, interfere with appetite or the ability to eat.
A change in appetite is a common sign of depression. Some people experience increased appetite, but more often, the change is a loss of appetite. Other symptoms may include unexplained fatigue, sadness, sleep problems, disinterest in sex, and an inability to function.
Almost any intestinal disorder can produce a loss of appetite. Nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and other symptoms all can play havoc with normal appetite. Appetite usually returns with an easing of these other symptoms, but in cases of a chronic disease, such as chronic gastritis, the inability to eat may lead to significant weight loss.
Intestinal parasites are not as common in the United States as in the tropics and underdeveloped countries. But people who travel to these areas, as well as those who live in areas lacking good sanitation, are susceptible to picking up intestinal parasites. Children who frequently put unwashed hands and objects in their mouths may contract pinworms and other parasitic infections. Symptoms vary depending upon the parasite, but may include poor appetite, abdominal pain, rectal itching, and loss of weight.
The liver is involved in almost all of the body's metabolic and chemical processes. Thus, most liver diseases produce a loss of appetite. Other symptoms include abdominal pain, swelling, and jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and the white portions of the eye.
Inability to properly absorb food can cause loss of appetite as well as loss of weight nutritional deficiencies, abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating, and gas. Sometimes the problem is caused by an inability to absorb a particular food or nutrient. Celiac disease, in which a person cannot tolerate a protein in wheat and certain other grains, is a common example. Intestinal damage from an infection, such as the damage that occurs in tropical sprue, also can cause nutrient malabsorption.
This infectious disease is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus and is particularly common among adolescents and young adults. In addition to loss of appetite, symptoms include fever, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes.
Anything that interferes with a person's ability to chew or swallow food can affect appetite. Even something as minor as a canker sore can interfere with eating. Chronic gum problems, a sore tongue, or reduced flow of saliva also can cause a loss of appetite.
Appetite, in large part, depends upon taste and the ability to smell food. Anything that interferes with these sensory functions can produce a loss of appetite. For example, taste naturally diminishes with age, explaining why many older people complain of a loss of appetite.
Advice about loss of appetite
- It is normal to be less hungry when a person is not feeling well. Do not try to force down foods. Instead, drink plenty of fluids, especially fruit juices.
- Sometimes a finicky appetite can be tempted by small, attractive portions of favorite foods. Don't overwhelm the sick person with a full plate.
- Many drugs alter taste or cause loss of appetite. If foods taste strange or there is a loss of appetite after starting a drug, ask the doctor if it might be the culprit.