What causes a loss of appetite?

Anyone can experience a loss of appetite and for many different reasons. People may have less of a desire to eat, lose interest in food, or feel nausea at the idea of eating.

Alongside a loss of appetite, a person may also experience fatigue and weight loss if they are not eating enough food to sustain their body.

In this article, we look at what causes a loss of appetite, what it means, complications, and how to treat it.

Causes and other symptoms

Digestive issues may lead to a person losing their appetite.

A loss of appetite can be physical or psychological. It is often temporary due to factors such as infections or digestive issues, in which case appetite will come back when a person has recovered.

Some people may also lose their appetite as a symptom of a long-term medical condition, such as in the late stages of serious illness, including cancer. This is part of a condition that doctors call cachexia.

The medical term for a complete loss of appetite over a more extended period of time is anorexia. This is different to the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, which is a mental health issue.

Below, we look at the possible causes for a loss of appetite.

Common causes

Common viral or bacterial infections, such as flu or gastroenteritis, are often to blame for appetite loss. A person’s appetite usually returns when they start to recover.

Common short-term causes of feeling a loss of appetite include:

colds

flu

respiratory infections

bacteria or viral infections

constipation

an upset stomach

digestive issues

acid reflux

food poisoning

allergies

food intolerances

a stomach bug or gastroenteritis

pregnancy

hormonal imbalances

stress

medication side effects

alcohol or drug use

People with pain in their mouths, such as sores, may also experience a loss of appetite if it becomes difficult to eat.

Medical conditions

Long-term medical conditions can cause a loss of appetite for a range of reasons that vary depending on the cause. Loss of appetite can be related to lowered immune system function, feeling unwell, and having an upset stomach.

Medical conditions that can cause a loss of appetite include:

digestive conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease

a hormonal condition known as Addison’s disease

asthma

diabetes

chronic liver or kidney disease

high calcium levels in the blood

HIV and AIDS

underactive thyroid or hypothyroidism

overactive thyroid or hyperthyroidism

COPD

heart failure

stomach or colon cancer

Side effect of medications

A loss of appetite is a common side effect of many medications, along with other digestive issues, such as constipation or diarrhea. This is common when medications pass through a person’s stomach and digestive tract.

Medications and treatments that often cause a loss of appetite include:

sedatives

some antibiotics

immunotherapy

chemotherapy

radiation therapy to the stomach area

If people have recently undergone major surgery, they may experience a loss of appetite after the operation. This feeling can be partly related to anesthesia drugs.

Using drugs recreationally, such as cocaine, cannabis, and amphetamines can also cause a loss of appetite.

Psychological causes

Psychological factors and mental health conditions can have a significant impact on a person’s appetite. These can include:

depression

anxiety

panic attacks

stress

grief

eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa

Age

A loss of appetite can also be more common in older adults. This can be due to increased use of medications and changes in the body as it ages. These changes can affect:

the digestive system

the hormones

the sense of taste or smell

Some cancers

A loss of appetite or unexpected weight loss can sometimes be a symptom of certain cancers, such as pancreatic, ovarian, or stomach cancer.

Alongside a loss of appetite, people may experience the following symptoms:

stomach pains

heartburn

feeling full quickly

yellowing of the skin or eyes

blood in their stools

If people experience any of these symptoms, they should see a doctor who will be able to find out the underlying cause.

Loss of appetite and serious illnesses

A person should see a doctor if they are vomiting for more than a day and have a complete loss of appetite.

People with serious medical conditions may experience a loss of appetite that can be due to the illness itself or as a side effect of treatments, such as chemotherapy treatment for cancers.

Some people in the later stages of serious illnesses may experience cachexia.

Cachexia is the term for weight loss, muscle wastage, and general ill-health caused by chronic, life-limiting illnesses.

People with cachexia can get nutritional advice from their doctor who can help create a nutritional plan to make sure they get the necessary calories and nutrients.

A person with a serious illness should see their doctor if they have a complete loss of appetite for a day or more or any of the following:

vomiting for a day or longer

inability to keep liquids down

pain when trying to eat

irregular urination

Treatment

A doctor may prescribe certain medications to help increase appetite and reduce other symptoms, for example, nausea.

If depression or anxiety are causing people to experience a loss of appetite, talking therapies and sometimes antidepressants can help.

If a doctor thinks a specific medication is a reason for a loss of appetite, they may be able to change the dosage or the medication.

Home remedies

People may find it easier to eat several smaller meals a day instead of three bigger ones.

Aim to make these meals high in calories and protein to make sure the body is getting plenty of nutrients and energy. People may also find having liquid meals, such as smoothies and protein drinks, easier to take.

Adding herbs, spices, or other flavorings to meals may also encourage people to eat more easily. Eating meals in relaxing or social settings may make eating more enjoyable.

People can also keep drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Gentle exercise, such as a short walk, may sometimes increase appetite as well.

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Diagnosis

A doctor will look at all the symptoms a person is experiencing, and use these to work out the possible cause of their loss of appetite.

A doctor may examine a person’s abdomen by feeling with their hand for any unusual bloating, lumps, or tenderness. This can help them find out if a gastrointestinal disorder is causing a loss of appetite.

A doctor may also carry out tests to help them work out the cause. Tests can include:

blood tests

an abdominal X-ray

an endoscopy, where a camera enables doctors to look inside the body

When to see a doctor

It is important to find out the reason for a loss of appetite, as it can lead to complications without treatment.

A continued loss of appetite can cause weight loss and malnutrition. It is vital for people to find out the reason for their loss of appetite, as leaving it untreated can be serious.

People can talk to a doctor if they have a loss of appetite for a prolonged period. If they notice any unexpected or rapid weight loss, they should also see their doctor.

An individual should seek medical help if they notice any other symptoms alongside a loss of appetite, such as:

stomach pain

fever

shortness of breath

coughing

a rapid or irregular heartbeat

Summary

People can experience a loss of appetite for a wide range of reasons. Some of these are short-term, including colds, food poisoning, other infections, or the side effects of medication. Others are to do with long-term medical conditions, such as diabetes, cancer, or life-limiting illnesses.

Appetite loss often comes with feelings of fatigue or nausea. If a person is worried about a loss of appetite they should tell their doctor, also mentioning all other symptoms.

Treatments for appetite loss will depend on the cause. People may benefit from eating small, regular meals instead of three large meals, and liquid meals are often more palatable.

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