Loss of Appetite (Anorexia)

There are many reasons you can experience a loss of appetite, clinically referred to as anorexia. Cancer or other chronic diseases, aging, and mental health conditions may cause anorexia. It can also be the side effect of certain medications and cancer treatments.

Lack of nutrition due to anorexia causes weight loss, fatigue, and weakness and can become fatal. If you're having trouble eating or feel nauseated for a day or more, call your provider or consider emergency help.

This article provides an overview of the causes, treatments, and management options of appetite loss.

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Loss of Appetite Symptoms

Loss of appetite is often accompanied by feeling sick at the thought of food. The feeling can be temporary or long term, depending on the cause, and can lead to a decrease in essential nutrients (malnutrition). Typical signs include:

  • Little to no interest in food
  • Refusing favorite foods
  • Unintended weight loss

Persistent anorexia can lead to cachexia, a condition in which the body starts digesting its muscles and fat. Over time, this can lead to dangerously low levels of nutrients.

Types of Anorexia

"Anorexia" is the medical term for loss of appetite. It can occur with acute (short-term) illnesses like a cold or flu and resolve when the illness goes away, or it can accompany chronic (long-term) health conditions like cancer or  human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that leads to extreme weight loss and, if left untreated, serious health problems.

Causes of Anorexia

Loss of appetite is caused by many factors, some more serious than others, including:

  • Aging
  • Cancer
  • Certain medications (such as chemotherapy)
  • Chronic kidney, liver, and lung disease
  • Common illnesses (like a cold or flu)
  • Dementia
  • Emotions (like sadness, grief, or depression)
  • Heart failure
  • Hepatitis
  • HIV
  • Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)

Aging and Appetite Loss

Loss of appetite or interest in eating are natural results of aging and can arise in the elderly. Age-related anorexia is estimated to affect 15% to 30% of older people.

What Medications Can Cause Loss of Appetite?

A wide range of medications and classes of drugs cause anorexia. Loss of appetite is a common side effect of cancer treatments, including:

Along with anorexia, these treatments cause nausea, changes in taste and smell, flu-like symptoms, swelling, and pain.

Other types of medications associated with anorexia include:

  • Antidepressants
  • Antibiotics   
  • Opioids and pain medications  
  • Stimulants.
  • Type 2 diabetes medications

How to Treat Anorexia

The specific approach to treating loss of appetite depends on the cause. Cases of acute anorexia related to the common cold, gastroenteritis (stomach flu), and influenza often resolve without medical attention. However, medications, treatments, or lifestyle approaches benefit other causes of appetite loss.

Medications

In chronic anorexia cases, medications can help induce hunger and manage nausea that may be causing it. Such medications include:

Counseling and Therapy

Along with other approaches, counseling and therapy may help in some instances of anorexia, especially those related to eating disorders, depression, or anxiety. Options include:

  • Family therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Nutrition counseling
  • Psychotherapy

Lifestyle Management

Specific lifestyle changes can promote a healthier appetite. Here are some strategies that may help improve your appetite:

  • Add calorie- and protein-rich foods to your diet.
  • Carry snacks with you and eat frequently.
  • Eat five to six small meals throughout the day.
  • Hydrate between meals.
  • If food is unappetizing, consider a nutritious beverage.
  • Incorporate physical activity.
  • Manage side effects that contribute to loss of appetite.
  • Manage your emotions.
  • Note when your appetite is best and eat during those times.
  • Snack before bedtime.

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Anorexia?

Since many different factors can cause loss of appetite, the course of diagnosis depends on the suspected underlying cause of symptoms. Providers may use a number of tests and assessments, including:

  • Imaging tests, like an X-ray or ultrasound
  • Laboratory tests, like blood or urine tests
  • Medical history, including mental health history
  • Physical examination to check height and weight

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Several signs prompt a call to your provider if you have a loss of appetite, including:

  • If a loss of appetite comes with signs of depression, drug or alcohol use, or an eating disorder
  • If loss of appetite is occurring with the use of certain medications (talk to your healthcare provider before stopping any medications)
  • If you are losing weight without trying

Summary

Anorexia is the clinical term for loss of appetite. Many health conditions cause this; it’s most often associated with viral and bacterial infections and chronic diseases. It can also arise due to mood or eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. Terminal illness, cancer, cancer treatment, and certain medications can cause anorexia. Treatments include medications, therapy, and lifestyle changes.    

A Word From Verywell

Losing your appetite can be frustrating, especially when you want to eat but nothing seems appetizing. There are many potential causes of anorexia, and if you're unsure what is causing your loss of appetite, reach out to your healthcare provider. Your body must get the nutrients it needs.

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