Malnutrition in COPD

Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention

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Malnutrition means your body isn't getting enough of the nutrients it needs. You can be deficient in calories, carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, and/or minerals. If you are lacking in any of these components, you can experience symptoms such as weight loss, infections, low energy, diminished wound healing, and more.

There are several potential causes of malnutrition, including an inadequate or unbalanced diet, gastrointestinal (GI) problems, and medical conditions such as kidney disease.

Your doctor may order diagnostic tests to determine if and why you are malnourished. You might be advised to eat or drink nutritional supplements. And if you can't eat or drink, you may need intravenous (IV, in a vein) support and/or a feeding tube to replenish your nutrition.


Symptoms of malnutrition can vary from mild to very severe. You can experience gradual effects that worsen over time, especially if you have developed malnutrition due to a chronic issue like heart failure or alcoholism.

If your malnutrition is caused by a rapidly progressive illness, such as acute pancreatitis, you can experience consequences of malnutrition along with symptoms of your underlying condition.

Common symptoms of malnutrition include:

  • Fatigue
  • Lack of energy
  • Moodiness, depression, irritability
  • Dizziness
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased muscle tone and strength
  • Weakened immune system (frequent infections)
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Disruption of the menstrual cycle (menstrual periods usually stop)
  • Slow wound healing
  • Prolonged bleeding from wounds
  • Glossitis (inflammation of the tongue) and/or stomatitis (inflammation of the mouth)
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Fainting
  • Brittle hair or hair loss
  • Bone fractures

Children and Malnutrition

Malnutrition can also affect children's growth and development, potentially causing irreversible health issues. Children who are malnourished might not grow to their optimal height. They can have thin hair, skin breakouts, spotty skin discoloration, fragile bones, learning difficulties, personality issues, and/or mood problems.

Children who are malnourished can have a predisposition to serious health effects that could develop years later, such as heart failure, asthma, allergies, chronic respiratory disease, GI disease, diabetes, and kidney failure.

Associated Symptoms

Depending on the cause of your malnutrition, you can have other symptoms as well. For example, alcoholic liver failure often leads to malnutrition and causes a number of other effects.

Symptoms you may have in association with malnutrition include:

If you experience any effects of malnutrition or associated symptoms, be sure to talk to your doctor.


There are a variety of causes of malnutrition. Many people cannot eat a healthy diet due to a lack of food, and others cannot eat because of health issues.

Even if you eat enough healthy food, you may have trouble absorbing nutrients. Illness can increase the demands on your body. Some conditions, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or cancer, diminish your appetite and alter your metabolism as your body works extra hard to cope with the disease.


If you chronically feel nauseated, you might avoid eating—and you are likely to stay away from specific foods that make you feel like throwing up. This can happen due to cancer, chronic constipation, chemotherapy, anxiety, and more. Hyperosmia, an enhanced sense of smell, can cause severe nausea too—especially during pregnancy.

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia are driven by pathological anxiety about weight. Extremely low caloric intake with these disorders results in malnutrition.

Some medical conditions interfere with eating because of neuromuscular problems that affect chewing and swallowing. This can happen after a stroke or due to a disease like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

The result of dietary deficiency is that you can be low in calories, and you might also be disproportionately low in certain vitamins, minerals, and proteins.


A number of GI conditions lead to inefficient nutrient absorption. Even if you eat enough healthy food, your body might not absorb it. This can happen with conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), acute infectious diarrhea, chronic diarrhea, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), or liver failure.

If you have had a bowel or stomach resection due to disease or for weight loss, you might also absorb fewer nutrients from the food you eat.


Most medical illnesses consume your body's energy. For example, you can lose some weight when you have the flu or pneumonia.

A major infection, trauma, or recovery after surgery can also consume a lot of calories as your body heals. And you might notice substantial weight loss lasting for weeks or even months after a major health event. Most of the time, you will feel extra hungry during and after recovery from a brief illness, and you can usually eat enough healthy food once you recover to avoid any lasting effects of malnutrition.

Chronic diseases, such as heart failure, emphysema, kidney failure, diabetes, liver disease, and cancer may result in long term malnutrition due to high caloric demands on your body.


Identifying malnutrition isn't always clear cut. Unwanted weight loss is an obvious sign, but you can be malnourished with normal weight or even be overweight and lacking in nutrients. In addition to your physical examination, your doctor might run blood tests to help identify nutritional deficiencies.

You may also need further evaluation to determine the cause of your malnutrition.

Physical Examination

Your weight is the most obvious indicator of malnutrition. If you have lost weight, your weight will be compared to your previous weights. Your current weight can also be compared to the standard body mass index (BMI) expected for a person of your height and age.

Your muscle tone and strength will be tested, and your heart rate, blood pressure, and skin will all be examined for signs of malnutrition.

Diagnostic Tests

You might also need tests to look for specific nutritional deficiencies, which can manifest with problems like anemia (low red blood cell count and/or function) or bone fragility (due to vitamin D or calcium deficiency). And other diagnostic tests can help pinpoint the cause of your malnutrition (such as heart disease or cancer).

Complete blood test (CBC): Vitamin B12 anemia and iron deficiency anemia are common types of nutritional anemia, and a CBC will show abnormalities in red blood cells (RBCs) reflective of these deficiencies. A CBC can also help identify certain types of blood cancer, such as lymphoma and leukemia.

Specialized blood tests: Liver function tests (LFTs) can identify liver disease, and abnormalities in electrolytes may point to kidney disease or other systemic diseases. A lead level may also be ordered because lead toxicity can contribute to malnutrition, especially in young children.

Urinalysis: Dehydration, which is suboptimal body fluid concentration, is often associated with malnutrition. A urine test can determine if you are dehydrated, and it can also be used to check for signs of diabetes mellitus (high glucose and/or protein) or kidney disease.

Tests of cardiovascular function: Because heart failure can lead to malnutrition, your doctor may check your heart with an electrocardiogram (EKG) or echocardiogram, non-invasive tests that can detect heart failure and heart rhythm issues.

Oxygen concentration: Severe infections, lung disease, or heart disease can impair your ability to breathe or absorb oxygen, resulting in low blood oxygen levels. This can be detected with non-invasive pulse oximetry, or with an arterial blood gas (ABG) test.

Abdominal imaging: If there is concern about cancer or disease in the abdomen, you may need an abdominal ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test.

Chest X-ray or chest CT: A lung disease or lung cancer that causes malnutrition may show changes in chest imaging. Metastasis from cancer that spread from elsewhere in the body (such as breast or prostate) can also appear on chest imaging tests.

Bone X-ray or bone scan: Malnutrition can lead to thinning bones in adults or deficient bone development in children. Diagnostic imaging tests can help identify these issues.

Stool sample: Lack of nutrient absorption is often associated with blood in the stool or with fat in the stool. Your stool may be sent to a laboratory for testing to assess the cause of your malnutrition.

You are unlikely to need all of these diagnostic tests, but you may need some of them if you are malnourished.


Malnutrition needs to be treated. Eating a healthier diet is one approach, but chewing and swallowing problems can make that impossible for some people.

Eating or drinking nutritional supplements may help you gain weight and get your essential nutrients because they are generally calorie-dense and packed with protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Feeding Tubes

For some people, a feeding tube placed in the mouth, stomach or intestines can be the most effective route for nutrients to be directly delivered into the GI system for absorption.

A nasogastric tube is a flexible tube placed in the mouth and advanced into the stomach. This is typically kept in place with tape that is placed around the nostrils and the tube. It is usually temporary and can be used for nutritional feeding as well as medication.

A gastric tube can be surgically placed in the stomach, and a jejunostomy tube is surgically placed in the small intestine. You may need to have a feeding tube surgically placed if you need long term nutritional support.


If you have severe GI issues or a major illness, you might need other approaches for treating malnutrition. Injections, such as vitamin B12 and vitamin D can be used to get these vitamins directly into your system if you can't take them by mouth or if your absorption is impaired.

Intravenous (IV, by vein) fluids containing essential minerals can supplement fluid and electrolytes directly into your system if you are severely ill.


If you are pregnant, undergoing chemotherapy, or have another issue that makes you feel repulsed by food, your doctor may also prescribe anti-nausea medication or medication to increase your appetite.

Medications like Megace (megestrol acetate)Reglan (metoclopramide), and Marinol (dronabinol) can diminish nausea and improve your appetite.

Some prescription medications used to increase appetite or decrease nausea can have side effects and may not be safe during pregnancy.

Treating the Underlying Cause

In addition to nutritional "catching up," the cause of your malnutrition needs to be addressed as well. If you have an infection, anxiety, digestive issues, liver disease, cancer, or any other illness contributing to your malnutrition, you need to have the cause taken care of in addition to your nutritional recovery.

A Word From Verywell

Malnutrition is a serious problem that affects people worldwide for a variety of reasons. If you do not have healthy food available, it's important that you seek assistance for yourself and your family. And if a medical condition is at the root of your malnutrition, talk to your doctor so you can get treatment as soon as possible.

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