Unexplained Weight Loss
What is unexplained weight loss?
Unexplained weight loss is a noticeable drop in body weight that occurs even if the person is not trying to lose weight. The weight loss does not come about because of diet, exercise or lifestyle changes. Weight loss of 10 pounds or more, or five percent of body weight, over a period of 6 to 12 months is considered “unexplained.”
Unexplained weight loss can be a symptom of a serious condition or illness. For this reason, it is important to seek medical attention if you (or a family member) have weight loss that cannot be explained.
Who is at risk for unexplained weight loss?
Unexplained weight loss can occur in anyone. However, it is most common (and most serious) in people who are over the age of 65. Even unexplained weight loss of less than 5 percent of body weight or 10 pounds may be the sign of a serious condition in older people.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the causes of unexplained weight loss?
Unexplained weight loss can be caused by conditions that range from mild to very serious. The causes can be physical or psychological, and include:
- An overactive or underactive thyroid gland. The thyroid gland helps regulate your body temperature and control your heart rate and metabolism (the process that turns the food you eat into energy).
- Crohn’s disease (an inflammation of the bowels)
- Heart failure
- Addison’s disease, a condition in which the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys, do not produce enough of the hormones cortisol and aldosterone
- Parkinson’s disease
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as peptic ulcer or ulcerative colitis
- Dental problems
- Depression or anxiety
- Side effects of prescription medications
- Celiac disease (allergy to gluten)
- A parasitic infection
- Drug abuse
- Undiagnosed eating disorders
- Swelling of the pancreas
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Dysphagia (swallowing problems)
Diagnosis and Tests
When should I see a doctor about unexplained weight loss?
You should consult your physician if you have lost more than 5 percent of body weight or 10 pounds without trying in a period of 6 to 12 months. This is especially important if you have other symptoms, too.
How is unexplained weight loss diagnosed?
To diagnose your weight loss, your doctor will give you a physical examination and ask you such questions as:
- How much weight have you lost?
- When did the weight loss begin?
- Are you taking any medications?
- Have your eating patterns changed?
- Are you exercising more?
- Have you been sick recently?
- Are you feeling tired more often?
- Do you have any dental problems?
- Do you have any problems with swallowing?
- Have you been vomiting?
- Are you experiencing stress?
- Have you had any fainting episodes?
- Do you have increased thirst?
- Are you urinating more than usual?
- Do you have diarrhea?
- Are you depressed?
- How much alcohol do you drink per day?
The answers to these questions will help your doctor determine if other tests might be needed, such as blood work and imaging scans (X-rays, etc.).
Management and Treatment
How is unexplained weight loss treated?
Unexplained weight loss is treated by identifying the underlying condition (the condition or illness that is causing the weight loss). If no underlying condition is identified right away, your doctor may recommend a wait-and-see approach, along with a special diet.
For instance, your doctor may recommend that you use nutrition shakes to get more calories, or add flavor enhancers to your food to improve the taste so that you eat more. You may be also be referred to a dietitian for advice and counseling.