Unintentional Weight Loss Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

Understand your unintentional weight loss symptoms, including 10 causes and common questions.

Unintentional Weight Loss Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your unintentional weight loss

Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 10 Possible Unintentional Weight Loss Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. Real-Life Stories
  6. FAQs
  7. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  8. Statistics
  9. Related Articles
  10. References

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.

Common characteristics of unintentional weight loss

Main characteristics include [3,4]:

Duration of symptoms

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

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.

10 Possible Unintentional Weight Loss Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced unintentional weight loss. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Overactive thyroid

The thyroid is a small, bow-tie shaped gland in your neck. Its main job is to produce thyroid hormone (known as T3 or T4), which serves a wide array of functions throughout the body.

When too much thyroid hormone is released, the body’s metabolism gets ramped up, causing symptoms ...

Read more

Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis, or TB, is a lung infection caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis. In some cases, it can affect other organs such as the brain or kidneys.

The disease spreads when an infected person exhales, speaks, or coughs and someone else inhales the bacteria. Tuberculosis is not transmitted any other way. Some patients carry TB without ever showing symptoms, though the disease may become active if something happens to weaken the immune system.

Most susceptible are those with weakened immune systems; infected with HIV; living or working in homeless shelters, correctional facilities, or nursing homes; and children under age 5.

Symptoms include severe cough that may bring up sputum and/or blood; chest pain; weakness; weight loss; fever; chills, and night sweats.

Diagnosis is made through skin tests, blood tests, sputum tests, and chest x-ray.

Treatment involves a course of specialized antibiotics under close medical supervision, along with rest and supportive care.

There is a vaccine for tuberculosis, but it is not entirely effective and not routinely given in the United States.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, cough, shortness of breath, rib pain, dry cough

Urgency: In-person visit

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive inflammation of the lungs that makes breathing difficult. It is caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases and/or dust particles, most often cigarette smoke.

Symptoms may take years to develop. They include a chronic cough with mucus (sputum), wheezing, chest tightness, fatigue, constant colds, swollen ankles, and cyanosis (blue tinge to the lips and/or fingernails.) Depression is often a factor due to reduced quality of life.

Treatment is important because there is a greater risk of heart disease and lung cancer in COPD patients. Though the condition cannot be cured, it can be managed to reduce risks and allow good quality of life.

COPD is commonly misdiagnosed and so careful testing is done. Diagnosis is made through patient history; physical examination; lung function tests; blood tests; and chest x-ray or CT scan.

Treatment involves quitting smoking and avoiding exposure to other lung irritants; use of inhalers to ease symptoms; steroids; lung therapies; and getting influenza and pneumonia vaccines as recommended.

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

Hodgkin's lymphoma

Hodgkin lymphoma, formerly known as Hodgkin's lymphoma or Hodgkin's disease, is cancer of the lymphatic system. It is believed to be caused by a mutation in one of the body's immune system cells, called a B cell.

Most susceptible are those under age 30 or over age 55, with a family history of the disease, as well as anyone with a history of any illness caused by the Epstein-Barr virus.

Symptoms include swelling of lymph nodes in groin, armpits, and neck; lowered tolerance to drinking alcohol, including pain in lymph nodes afterwards; unintended weight loss; fever; chills; night sweats; and itching.

There are good treatments available for Hodgkin lymphoma, so it is important to see a medical provider about these symptoms as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination; blood tests; imaging such as x-ray, CT scan, or PET scan; and sometimes lymph node biopsy and/or bone marrow sample.

Treatment involves a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Bone marrow transplant, also called stem cell transplant, can be done in some cases.

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

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Non-hodgkin lymphoma

Lymphoma is a type of cancer that results from the malignant proliferation of white blood cells. White blood cells are a part of our bodies’ immune system and are important for fighting infection. Lymphomas are sub-classified as Hodgkin or non-Hodgkin lymphomas. These subtypes...

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Unintentional Weight Loss Symptom Checker

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Acute lymphoblastic leukemia

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is also called acute lymphocytic leukemia or ALL. It is a cancer that starts in the bone marrow where new white blood cells, or lymphocytes, are formed. Normal white blood cells are blocked and cancerous cells formed instead, causing the symptoms of the disease.

This blood cancer, or leukemia, can spread quickly through the bloodstream to other organs in the body.

ALL is caused by a genetic abnormality, which can be hereditary or can be acquired through overexposure to radiation. The disease is most common in young children and most are cured after treatment.

Symptoms include fatigue; shortness of breath; fever; aching extremities; unexplained bruising; and tiny red spots under the skin (petechiae.)

ALL can start and spread quickly, so it is important for the patient to see a medical provider at the earliest symptoms.

Diagnosis is made through blood tests and bone marrow tests.

Treatment involves some combination of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. Stem cell transplantation may be an option following the chemotherapy.

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

Chronic myeloid leukemia (cml)

Chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML, is a rare cancer of the blood. It is also called chronic myelogenous leukemia or chronic granulocytic leukemia.

"Chronic" means the condition appears gradually, over months or years. "Myeloid" cells normally give rise to red, white, and other blood cells but cannot function due to the cancer.

CML is believed to have a genetic cause, though it is not hereditary.

CML is most often seen in older male adults and rarely in children, though anyone can be affected.

Symptoms include bleeding that is slow to clot; pain on the left side of the mid abdomen; fatigue; fever; loss of appetite; unexplained weight loss; pale skin; and night sweats.

It is important to see a medical provider with these symptoms, for the disease responds best when treated early.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, blood tests, and bone marrow tests.

Treatment most often involves therapy with specialized, "targeted" drugs. Other treatments are chemotherapy; therapy to strengthen the immune system; and sometimes a blood stem cell transplant.

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

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.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, headache, anxiety, irritability

Symptoms that always occur with depression: depressed mood

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Mild chronic depression (dysthymia)

Mild chronic depression is also called dysthymia, dysthymic disorder, or persistent depressive disorder. It is a long-term, low-grade depression that may last for years and periodically swings from mild to severe, but never really lifts.

The cause of is not certain. Heredity and brain chemistry may make it more difficult to cope with stressful life events. Dysthymia often begins early in life and may appear in childhood, especially among those with other mental health disorders.

Symptoms include feeling hopeless and inadequate; loss of interest in normal activities; trouble sleeping; irritability; and difficulty relating to others.

Long-term depression can seriously affect anyone's quality of life. If there is talk of suicide, it should be considered a medical emergency. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination and blood testing to rule out any physical cause, and through psychological evaluation.

Treatment involves antidepressant medication and "talk therapy," as well as help with life management and coping skills.

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

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.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms:

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."

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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

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

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

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Please take a quiz to find out what might be causing your unintentional weight loss. These questions are also covered.

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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 were most often matched with:

  • 45% Tuberculosis
  • 27% Overactive Thyroid
  • 27% Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (Copd)

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

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

Unintentional Weight Loss Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your unintentional weight loss

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

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