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The information contained on this page is provided as general health information and is not intended to substitute as medical advice and direction from your physician or health care provider. Please direct any questions related to your health care provider. In an emergency, call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency center.


Kwashiorkor

Definition

Kwashiorkor is a form of malnutrition that occurs when there is not enough protein in the diet.

Alternative Names

Protein malnutrition; Protein-calorie malnutrition; Malignant malnutrition

Causes

Kwashiorkor is most common in areas where there is:

  • Famine
  • Limited food supply
  • Low levels of education (when people do not understand how to eat a proper diet)

This disease is more common in very poor countries. It often occurs during a drought or other natural disaster, or during political unrest. These conditions are responsible for a lack of food, which leads to malnutrition.

Kwashiorkor is rare in children in the United States. There are only isolated cases. However, one government estimate suggests that as many as 50% of elderly people in nursing homes in the United States do not get enough protein in their diet.

When kwashiorkor does occur in the United States, it is most often a sign of child abuse and severe neglect.

Symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • Changes in skin pigment
  • Decreased muscle mass
  • Diarrhea
  • Failure to gain weight and grow
  • Fatigue
  • Hair changes (change in color or texture)
  • Increased and more severe infections due to damaged immune system
  • Irritability
  • Large belly that sticks out (protrudes)
  • Lethargy or apathy
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Rash (dermatitis)
  • Shock (late stage)
  • Swelling (edema)

Exams and Tests

The physical exam may show an enlarged liver (hepatomegaly) and general swelling.

Tests may include:

Treatment

Getting more calories and protein will correct kwashiorkor, if treatment is started early enough. However, children who have had this condition will never reach their full potential for height and growth.

Treatment depends on the severity of the condition. People who are in shock need treatment right away to restore blood volume and maintain blood pressure.

Calories are given first in the form of carbohydrates, simple sugars, and fats. Proteins are started after other sources of calories have already provided energy. Vitamin and mineral supplements are essential.

Since the person will have been without much food for a long period of time, eating can cause problems, especially if the calories are too high at first. Food must be reintroduced slowly.

Many malnourished children will develop intolerance to milk sugar (lactose intolerance). They will need to be given supplements with the enzyme lactase so that they can tolerate milk products.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Getting treatment early generally leads to good results. Treating kwashiorkor in its late stages will improve the child's general health. However, the child may be left with permanent physical and mental problems. If treatment is not given or comes too late, this condition is life threatening.

Possible Complications

Complications may include:

  • Coma
  • Permanent mental and physical disability
  • Shock

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if your child has symptoms of kwashiorkor.

Prevention

To prevent kwashiorkor, make sure the diet has enough carbohydrates, fat (at least 10% of total calories), and protein (12% of total calories).

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Kwashiorkor symptoms

References

Ashworth A. Nutrition, food security, and health. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 46.

Kumar V, Abbas AK, Aster JC. Environmental and nutritional diseases. In: Kumar V, Abbas AK, Aster JC, eds. Robbins and Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 9.

Manary MJ, Trehan I. Protein-energy malnutrition. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 215.