Read below about unintentional weight loss, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your unintentional weight loss from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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Unintentional Weight Loss Symptoms

If you have not changed your eating habits or adjusted your exercise routine, losing weight can be a warning sign of an underlying health problem. If you are steadily losing weight for no apparent reason — even if you're pleased by this at first — you should see your medical provider as soon as possible [1].

Unintentional weight loss might also be called unexplained weight loss, malnutrition, starvation, or cachexia.

Characteristics

Main characteristics include [3,4]:

Duration

The duration of unintentional weight loss may be short- or long-term.

  • Acute form: This is losing five percent or more of the body weight in a relatively short time, such as a few weeks.
  • Chronic form: This is losing five percent or more of the body weight within six months to a year [1].

Who is most likely to be affected?

People who are most likely to be affected include:

  • Older adults: It is most common in those over about age 65 [1].
  • Anyone with a serious illness: HIV/AIDS and cancer can cause unintentional weight loss [2].

Is unintentional weight loss serious?

Unintentional weight loss may vary in severity.

  • Not serious: This includes temporary emotional conditions or physical illnesses that can be treated right away, with good follow-up care [4].
  • Moderately serious: Losing more than five percent of the body weight within one year is considered moderately serious [1].
  • Serious: An older adult (over age 65) losing five percent of his or her body weight within six months is a serious issue. The person should be seen by a medical provider as soon as possible, especially if there are other unexplained symptoms. It is important to correct any illness or condition quickly before the person goes into serious decline [1].

Unintentional Weight Loss Causes Overview

Many conditions can cause the symptom of unintentional weight loss. We've listed several different causes here, in approximate order from most to least common [2, 4-6].

Physical Illness

Almost any disease or condition can affect the appetite due to chronic pain or due to difficulty with eating and digestion. When treating unintended weight loss, your medical provider will address the underlying cause as well as the immediate loss of appetite [2,5,6].

  • Dental problems: This includes loss of teeth, cavities, and pain, improperly fitted dentures, or mouth sores.
  • Loss of the senses of taste and smell: This may be due to illness, injury, prescription medications, or substance abuse.
  • Aging: This may lead to problems with nutrient absorption.
  • Dysphagia: This means "difficulty swallowing." It can result in a fear of choking and a refusal to eat.
  • Endocrine and hormonal problems
  • Autoimmune illness
  • Neurological illness

Reduced caloric intake

Reduced calorie intake for reasons other than physical illness may include [2,5,6]:

  • Emotional illness: This includes depression, anxiety, or griefdue to loss, death, divorce, etc. Social isolation and post-traumatic stress disorder can also have similar effects.
  • Economic difficulty: This includes not being able to afford enough food, being unable to access food, or being homeless.
  • Dementia: This may leave the person unable to understand or communicate about what they should eat or what they want to eat.

Medications

Some side effects or usage habits can result in unintentional weight loss, such as [2,5,6]:

  • Loss of sense of taste
  • Loss of sense of smell
  • Nausea and stomach upset
  • Anorexia: This means "loss of appetite."
  • Dry mouth: This can make eating and swallowing difficult.
  • Polypharmacy: This means being on many medications at the same time, which can make side effects worse.

Substance abuse

Abusing the following can interfere with the senses of taste and smell, and interfere with digestion [2,6]:

  • Alcohol
  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamines
  • Laxatives

Increased activity level

Increased activity level without increased calorie intake can lead to unintentional weight loss. Activities may include:

  • A new sport
  • A new job: Switching from office work, for example, to construction or farm work.

Rare and Unusual Causes

Rare and unusual causes may include [2]:

  • Cancer [3]
  • Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
  • Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)

We've listed some specific conditions that can cause unintentional weight loss, along with how to identify each of them.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Unintentional Weight Loss

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced unintentional weight loss. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.Overactive Thyroid

    The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck, just above your collarbone. It is one of your endocrine glands, which make hormones. Thyroid glands control how fast one burns calories and how fast the heart beats. If the thyroid is too active, it makes more thyroid hormones than the body needs. This is called hyperthyroidism.

    Great prognosis with high remission rates

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, anxiety, depressed mood, irritability, trouble sleeping
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  2. 2.Tuberculosis

    Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease caused by bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which most commonly affects the lungs, although it can also affect other organs in the body. The bacteria can lie dormant in the body for a long time (even years), until they start causing symptoms such as cough, fever, loss of appetite, and night sweats.

    >6 months treatment with antibiotics.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, cough, shortness of breath, rib pain, dry cough
    Urgency:
    In-person visit
  3. 3.Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (Copd)

    COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a chronic condition of the lungs and the airways in the lungs. Damage has occured due to long-term exposure to substances that irritate and damage the lungs, such as cigarette smoke or air pollution. This damage can cause symptoms like shortness of breath, decreased exercise tolerance and cough. A common cold or other types of infection can cause symptoms to worden acutely, this is called an exacerbation.

    Often a lifelong condition

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, cough and dyspnea related to smoking, cough, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping
    Symptoms that always occur with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd):
    cough and dyspnea related to smoking
    Symptoms that never occur with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd):
    rectal bleeding
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  4. 4.Hodgkin's Lymphoma

    Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. Cells in the lymph nodes grow abnormally and may spread beyond the lymphatic system.

    Curable but survival rates are variable

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, loss of appetite, abdominal pain (stomach ache), shortness of breath, fever
    Symptoms that never occur with hodgkin's lymphoma:
    pulsing armpit mass, armpit lump that comes and goes, shrinking armpit lump, pink or red armpit bump, black or brown armpit bump, yellow or white armpit bump, bleeding armpit bump, armpit bump leaking yellow or milky fluid, armpit bump leaking clear fluid, scabbed armpit bump, scaly armpit bump, neck lump that comes and goes, shrinking neck bump, pink or red neck bump, black or brown neck bump, yellow or white neck bump, bleeding bump, bump leaking clear fluid, neck bump leaking yellow/milky fluid, scabbed bump, scaly neck bump, pulsing chest mass, chest lump that comes and goes, shrinking chest bump, pink or red chest bump, black or brown mass on chest, yellow or white chest bump, blue bump on the chest, bleeding chest bump, chest bump leaking clear fluid, chest bump leaking yellow/milky fluid, scabbed chest bump, scaly chest bump, pulsing groin mass, groin lump that comes and goes, shrinking groin lump, pink or red groin bump, black or brown groin bump, yellow or white groin bump, inflamed groin bump, scaly groin bump, bleeding groin bump, groin bump producing clear fluid, groin bump producing yellow or milky fluid
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  5. 5.Non - Hodgkin Lymphoma

    Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. Cells in the lymph nodes or bone marrow grow abnormally and may spread beyond the lymphatic system.

    Curable but survival rates are variable depending on the subtype.

    Rarity:
    Ultra rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, loss of appetite, abdominal pain (stomach ache), fever, shortness of breath
    Symptoms that never occur with non-hodgkin lymphoma:
    neck lump that comes and goes, shrinking neck bump, armpit lump that comes and goes, shrinking armpit lump, groin lump that comes and goes, shrinking groin lump
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

    Unintentional Weight Loss Checker

    Take a quiz to find out why you’re having unintentional weight loss.

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  6. 6.Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

    Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) is a cancer of the white blood cells. This disease most commonly affects children between the ages of 2-5 years, and is a much more rare disease in adults. People with this disease get sick very rapidly. First, they feel fatigue and dizziness, and eventually the disease leads to bone marrow failure.

    Prognosis is highly variable and dependent on the individual, so a consultation from an oncologist is required.

    Rarity:
    Ultra rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, fever, severe fatigue
    Symptoms that never occur with acute lymphoblastic leukemia:
    inflamed throat
    Urgency:
    In-person visit
  7. 7.Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (Cml)

    Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML) is a cancer of the white blood cells, which are cells that help fight disease. The disease has broad symptoms such as fever, fatigue, weakness, and pain in the left upper part of the abdomen.

    The prognosis is improved for those receiving medication such as imatinib, and 9 out of 10 people survive up to 5 years, according to a recent study. Consult with an oncologist.

    Rarity:
    Ultra rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, stomach bloating, shortness of breath, unintentional weight loss, feeling of fullness early in a meal
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  8. 8.Depression

    Depression is a mental disorder in which a person feels constantly sad, hopeless, discouraged, and loses interest in activities and life on more days than not. These symptoms interfere with daily life, work, and friendships.

    Depression's course is highly variable, and it may last weeks, months, or years.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, depressed mood, headache, anxiety, irritability
    Symptoms that always occur with depression:
    depressed mood
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  9. 9.Mild Chronic Depression (Dysthymia)

    Dysthymia, also called persistent depressive disorder, is a form of depression that is chronic. The causes of dysthymia are complex, and often are a combination of biological, genetic, and environmental factors. Dysthymia can interfere with everyday life, and people with this condition report feeling loss of interest in their daily activities, sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of energy.

    Dysthymia can last indefinitely.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, depressed mood, irritability, difficulty concentrating, impaired social or occupational functioning
    Symptoms that always occur with mild chronic depression (dysthymia):
    depressed mood
    Symptoms that never occur with mild chronic depression (dysthymia):
    severe sadness
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  10. 10.Bipolar Disorder Ii

    Bipolar Disorder II is similar to Bipolar disorder I, except that the patient experiences hypomanic episodes rather than manic episodes. A hypomanic epsiode includes the same symptoms as a manic episode except that it does not impair social or occupational functioning.

    Indefinite

    Rarity:
    Common
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

Unintentional Weight Loss Treatments and Relief

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, treatment may be necessary from medical professionals or can simply begin at home.

At-home treatments

Certain remedies that can be tried at home include [5,6]:

  • Give assistance: Make sure the person has help with shopping for food and preparing meals.
  • Modify diet: Use foods that the person likes, prepare them with extra flavor, and serve them in a softer or more finely chopped form.
  • Try using nutritional supplements: These can be purchased over-the-counter as drinks, puddings, and bars.

Medical treatments

You should schedule an appointment for any of the following [5,6].

  • Discussion of other symptoms: If you have any signs of other illness, you may need testing so that appropriate treatment can begin.
  • Referral to a nutritionist: A nutritionist can give you a healthy diet to help normalize your weight and energy levels.
  • Referral for counseling: A psychologist can help you cope with the emotional trauma that may be affecting your appetite and digestion.

Seek immediate treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if the following occur

If there is a loss of muscle mass as well as fat, and the person appears to be "wasting away."

FAQs About Unintentional Weight Loss

Here are some frequently asked questions about unintentional weight loss.

Is weight loss ever an early sign of pregnancy?

Weight loss can occur as part of pregnancy. Loss of appetite is common in early pregnancy due to changes in the senses of smell and taste. The growth and maintenance of the fetus uses up calories. If there is morning sickness, the nausea and vomitingwill make it even more difficult to eat properly [8].

Can appetite stimulants help?

In some cases, yes. These are prescription medications and may be tried in younger people, especially those with HIV/AIDS. However, these medications are not as effective in frail, elderly people and the risks of side effects in the elderly can outweigh any benefits [5,6].

Should I just add calories in order to gain weight?

A person can be unintentionally losing weight from malnutrition as well as a shortage of calories. Malnutrition means there are not enough vitamins, minerals, proteins, and/or carbohydrates to allow the body to maintain itself, so it burns too much fat — or burns muscle — to keep functioning. This can happen even if the number of calories seems sufficient [4,6].

Is unintentional weight loss always caused by cancer?

No. Other, non-cancerous causes are actually far more common. Illnesses of the digestive tract such as irritable bowel syndrome, and emotional traumas such as grief, loss, depression, and isolation are actually more common. Dementia is often the cause in older people. Sometimes the reason cannot be found for certain, but treatment can still be given [2,4].

Can alcoholism contribute to unintentional weight loss?

Sometimes, yes, because alcoholic drinks contain calories just as food does. A person may drink alcohol instead of eating and eventually suffer malnutrition. Also, alcohol contributes to the development of diabetes. Diabetes can lead to unintentional weight loss as the body loses the ability to process sugar and can no longer use the calories from carbohydrates to maintain itself [7].

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Unintentional Weight Loss

  • Q.Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Q.Have you lost your appetite recently?
  • Q.Do you currently smoke?
  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our unintentional weight loss symptom checker to find out more.

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Unintentional Weight Loss Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced unintentional weight loss have also experienced:

    • 7% Fatigue
    • 6% Loss of Appetite
    • 5% Nausea
  • People who have experienced unintentional weight loss had symptoms persist for:

    • 69% Over a Month
    • 12% Two Weeks to a Month
    • 7% One to Two Weeks
  • People who have experienced unintentional weight loss were most often matched with:

    • 45% Tuberculosis
    • 27% Overactive Thyroid
    • 27% Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (Copd)
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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References

  1. Unexplained Weight Loss: Definition. Mayo Clinic. Published January 11, 2018. Mayo Clinic Link.
  2. Unexplained Weight Loss: Causes. Mayo Clinic. Published January 11, 2018. Mayo Clinic Link
  3. Signs and Symptoms of Cancer. American Cancer Society. Updated August 11, 2014. American Cancer Society Link
  4. Unintentional Weight Loss. NI Direct. Published December 2017. NI Direct Link
  5. Stajkovic S, Aitken EM, Holroyd-Leduc J. Unintentional Weight Loss in Older Adults. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 2011;183(4):443-449. NCBI Link
  6. Huffman GB. Evaluating and Treating Unintentional Weight Loss in the Elderly. American Family Physician. 2002;65(4):640-651. AAFP Link
  7. Diabetes Symptoms: When Diabetes Symptoms Are a Concern. Mayo Clinic. Published April 21, 2016. Mayo Clinic Link
  8. Fejzo MS, Poursharif B, Korst LM, et. al. Symptoms and Pregnancy Outcomes Associated with Extreme Weight Loss Among Women with Hyperemesis Gravidarum. Journal of Women's Health. 2009;18(12):1981-1987. NCBI Link