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Loss of Appetite

Decreased appetite can be caused by something as mild as a stomach virus or as serious as cancer.
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Last updated September 9, 2021

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Answer our clinicians' questions to get a vomiting/nausea treatment prescription for $25 and know if your vomiting/nausea is serious.

Vomiting/nausea questionnaire

Answer our clinicians' questions to get a vomiting/nausea treatment prescription for $25 and know if your vomiting/nausea is serious.

See vomiting/nausea treatment options

Only available in: CA, NY, TX, FL, IL, NC, PA, OH, MI, and WA

Eating is one of the most basic, essential human functions—and a constant desire. If you suddenly don’t have an appetite, if you are repulsed by certain foods, or if you’re struggling to finish a meal, it’s a sign that something is wrong.

The problem could be as simple as a stomach bug that will pass in a day or two. But a lack of appetite for more than a few days can be a sign of something more serious, like a thyroid problem, cancer, or a mental health issue like stress or depression. Certain medications can also suppress your appetite.

The treatment of a poor appetite or loss of appetite depends on the cause. Many mental health issues are treated with talk therapy, lifestyle changes, and medications. But treatment varies if your decreased appetite is caused by conditions such as cancer, digestive issues, or thyroid disease.

Pro Tip

Eating is one of the most basic human functions. Therefore, loss of appetite rarely occurs for no reason. Many causes of loss of appetite can be treated, especially if diagnosed early, but prolonged loss of appetite can lead to weight loss and malnutrition, as well as a delay in diagnosis. —Dr. Chandra Manuelpillai

What causes a loss of appetite?

1. Depression

Symptoms

  • Loss of appetite (or overeating, in some cases)
  • Feeling sad, worthless, or hopeless
  • Loss of motivation
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Suicidal thoughts

Depression makes you feel sad, hopeless, discouraged most of the time. You may lose interest or pleasure in activities (like eating) and life in general.

Symptoms vary from person to person and may be mild, moderate, or severe. Depression can interfere with your daily life, work, and relationships. It’s not clear what causes depression, but family history, major life changes or traumas, and certain physical illnesses may play a role.

Treatments for depression include lifestyle changes (better sleep, healthier eating, regular exercise), psychotherapy, and medications like antidepressants.

2. Anxiety

Symptoms

  • Poor appetite
  • Nausea
  • Retching
  • Excessive worrying or a feeling of dread
  • Increased sweating
  • Constipation, diarrhea, or upset stomach
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breathing

Anxiety can cause digestive symptoms, such as nausea and stomach pain. These can be so uncomfortable that you have no desire to eat. There are many different types of anxiety, including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder is symptoms of chronic anxiety that are not necessarily caused by a specific trigger.
  • Panic attacks, in which severe anxiety symptoms come on suddenly, sometimes for no apparent reason. The symptoms of panic attacks (chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations) are often mistaken for a heart attack.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is anxiety caused by a traumatic event. Triggers include physical or emotional abuse, sexual assault, rape, a serious accident, military experience, or a natural disaster. People with PTSD may experience increased irritability, a feeling like they’re always on high alert (hyperarousal), nightmares, intrusive memories about the traumatic event, and trouble sleeping. They may also have substance use issues and are at a higher risk of depression and suicide.
  • A phobia is anxiety caused by a fear of something specific, such as public speaking or leaving your home (agoraphobia).

Just as there are many different forms of anxiety, there are many different types of treatment. Options include behavioral therapy or psychotherapy (such as exposure therapy and counseling), anti-anxiety medications, and lifestyle changes (exercising more, journaling, or meditating).

Vomiting/nausea questionnaire

Answer our clinicians' questions to get a vomiting/nausea treatment prescription for $25 and know if your vomiting/nausea is serious.

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Only available in: CA, NY, TX, FL, IL, NC, PA, OH, MI, and WA

3. Hypothyroidism

Symptoms

  • Decreased appetite
  • Cold intolerance
  • Dry, cool skin
  • Weight gain
  • Leg and face swelling
  • Constipation
  • Brittle hair and nails

Your thyroid gland is located in the back of your neck and produces hormones that affect many functions, including metabolism. Hypothyroidism is an “underactive thyroid,” which means it doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone. This causes many of your body’s functions to slow down, which can lead to a decreased appetite.

Hypothyroidism can happen because of an autoimmune disease; any surgery or radiation treatment to the thyroid gland; certain medications; pregnancy; or consuming too much or too little iodine. Usually, older women with a family history of the disease are at the greatest risk of hypothyroidism.

The condition is treated with replacement hormone pills. If untreated, symptoms can worsen and cause very low blood pressure and body temperature and even coma.

4. Cancer

Symptoms

  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained fever
  • Persistent pain with no known cause
  • Various symptoms depending on the type of cancer

Loss of appetite is a very common symptom of cancer. It can occur with any type of cancer, but it’s particularly common if you have cancer of the gastrointestinal tract. Some cancers also release hormones that affect the hunger centers in your brain.

If you develop symptoms, it’s very important to see your doctor right away. If your symptoms are caused by cancer, the earlier you’re diagnosed and treated, the more successful treatment will be.

Although cancer can cause loss of appetite, the treatment of it can also decrease hunger. Many chemotherapy treatments trigger the vomiting centers of the brain or cause damage to your digestive tract, leading to nausea and vomiting. Your oncologist will know which chemotherapy treatments are most likely to cause these symptoms and can prescribe anti-nausea medications.

5. Morning sickness

Symptoms

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to certain smells or tastes
  • Fatigue
  • Breast tenderness and enlargement

Pregnant women may get morning sickness, causing nausea and vomiting. This can make eating unappealing, and you may find you’re unable to tolerate certain foods that you usually like.

Despite its name, morning sickness can occur at any time of the day. It tends to develop in the first trimester, but some pregnant women may have it throughout their pregnancy.

You can try to prevent or lessen symptoms by eating bland foods such as crackers throughout the day (particularly when you first wake up) and drinking ginger ale.

Over-the-counter therapies—such as ginger, vitamin B-6 supplements, and doxylamine (Unisom)—can also help soothe your symptoms. Or your doctor may prescribe anti-nausea medications such as ondansetron (Zofran), metoclopramide (Reglan), or phenergan.

6. Infections

Symptoms

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Unintentional weight loss

Many infections, especially stomach bugs, like rotavirus or norovirus, can make you lose your appetite. These are associated with fever, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea.

Other infections such as the flu and COVID-19 can also make you lose your appetite, as well as hepatitis and HIV.

Most common stomach bugs and the flu go away on their own, but it’s important to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.

Vomiting/nausea questionnaire

Answer our clinicians' questions to get a vomiting/nausea treatment prescription for $25 and know if your vomiting/nausea is serious.

See vomiting/nausea treatment options

Only available in: CA, NY, TX, FL, IL, NC, PA, OH, MI, and WA

Other possible causes

A number of conditions may also cause loss of appetite, including:

  • Aversions to certain smells, tastes, or sights
  • Loss of sense of smell
  • In older people, medication side effects and changes in metabolism, as well as loss of taste and smell, is a common condition that occurs with age.
  • Medications such as prescription stimulants and illegal drugs like cocaine
  • Celiac disease
  • Peptic ulcer disease
  • Hyperparathyroidism, which causes the body to make too much parathyroid hormone
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease

Pro Tip

There are a few high-risk people to consider when discussing loss of appetite. The first is the elderly. The second group includes those suffering from psychiatric disorders. The third group is those suffering from eating disorders. —Dr. Manuelpillai

When to call the doctor

You should see your doctor if you lose your appetite and have the following symptoms for more than 1 to 2 weeks:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Fever
  • You haven't been able to eat for more than 48 hours

Should I go to the ER?

Loss of appetite usually isn’t an emergency. However, you should go to the ER if you have loss of appetite and any of these symptoms:

  • Severe malnutrition or dehydration
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Heart racing/palpitations
  • Localized numbness or weakness
  • Confusion
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or others

Treatments

At-home care

  • Exercise can stimulate your appetite.
  • Eat high-calorie and nutrient-dense foods, particularly those with high protein and healthy fats.
  • Add calories to meals by using butter, oil, or condiments such as peanut butter. You can also drink meal replacement beverages.
  • Eat small meals more often—it can be easier to manage smaller portions when you don’t have an appetite. Also, by eating more frequently, you help ensure you’re getting the nutrients you need.
  • Add herbs or spices to make food more appealing.
  • Drink more water to avoid dehydration.

Dr. Rx

As we age, our sense of taste and smell decrease, leading to decreased enjoyment of food. It also becomes harder to shop and/or cook for ourselves. Luckily, many of these can be managed by eating food you enjoy and eating smaller, more frequent meals, as well as eating foods that are high in calories and/or nutrient dense. —Dr. Manuelpillai

Hear what 1 other is saying
Mother with dementiaPosted July 13, 2021 by E.
Our mother has dementia and lost her appetite. We kept trying different foods, drinks and nothing worked until a friend suggested mixing cola with ensure or with ice cream to stimulate her appetite and it worked. We gave mom very small amounts on a baby spoon until she started drinking a little more. All the while giving her bits of soft food (meat, potato, greens, etc) since she no longer liked chewing her food. Mom started back to eating three times a day, but less food, but this was very good. We lost mom in April 2021.
Dr. Manuelpillai is a board-certified Emergency Medicine physician. She received her undergraduate degree in Health Science Studies from Quinnipiac University (2002). She then went on to graduated from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Sciences/The Chicago Medical School (2007) where she served on the Executive Student Council, as well as was the alternate delegate to the AMA/ISMS-MSS G...
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