Updated: May 5

Kwashiorkor, also known as “edematous malnutrition” because of its association with oedema (fluid retention), is a nutritional disorder most often seen in regions experiencing famine. This condition is rare in countries where most people have access to enough food and are able to eat adequate amounts of protein.

Kwashiorkor is a severe form of malnutrition caused by a lack of protein in the diet. If kwashiorkor does occur in regions where there is enough food with adequate amounts of protein, it can be a sign of abuse, neglect, fad diets, or a perceived milk allergy, found mostly in children or older adults. It can also be a sign of an underlying condition, such as HIV.

People suffering from kwashiorkor typically have an extremely emaciated appearance in all body parts except their ankles, feet, and belly, which swell with fluid.

Children who develop kwashiorkor may not grow or develop properly and may remain stunted for the rest of their lives.

Kwashiorkor can be life-threatening if it’s left untreated. It can cause major organ failure and eventually death.

Kwashiorkor is most common in areas where there is limited food supply caused by:

  • Famine

  • Political unrest,

  • Natural disaster (earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, etc.).

Also, low levels of education; when people do not understand how to eat a proper diet can cause Kwashiorkor.

Symptoms of Kwashiorkor

Symptoms include:

  • change in skin and hair colour (to a rust colour) and texture

  • fatigue

  • diarrhoea

  • loss of muscle mass

  • failure to grow or gain weight

  • oedema (swelling) of ankles, feet, and belly

  • damaged immune system, which can lead to more frequent and severe infections

  • irritability

  • flaky rash

  • ridged or cracked nails

  • growth retardation (failure to thrive)

  • vomiting

  • loss of appetite (refusal to eat)

  • moon face

  • lethargy or apathy

  • shock (late stage)

Kwashiorkor Diagnosis

Kwashiorkor can often be diagnosed based on a person’s physical appearance and questions about the person’s diet and care.

However, if kwashiorkor is suspected, your doctor will first examine you to check for an enlarged liver (hepatomegaly) and swelling. Next, blood and urine tests may be ordered to measure the level of protein and sugar in your blood.

Other tests may be performed on your blood and urine to measure signs of malnutrition and lack of protein. These tests may look for muscle breakdown and assess kidney function, overall health, and growth. These tests include:

  • arterial blood gas

  • blood urea nitrogen (BUN)

  • blood levels of potassium

  • urinalysis

  • complete blood count (CBC)

Other tests may include growth measurements, calculating body mass index (BMI), measuring body water content, taking a skin biopsy and analysing a hair sample.

How is Kwashiorkor Treated?

It's possible to treat kwashiorkor only with the full assistance of specialists. He / she should control the process of treatment and any changes in it. The general way includes the consumption of more proteins and more calories. There are several steps:

  1. First, a patient needs to get enough calories and fats. They might be provided with sugars, products with the high content of carbs.

  2. As soon as a person receives enough energy, proteins can be included. It’s essential that the amount of calories and foods should be increased very slowly (because the body have to adjust to it).

  3. The doctor can also recommend certain supplements such as vitamins or minerals.

Treatment usually consists of:

  • oral rehydration,

  • glutathione,

  • IV fluids,

  • N-acetylcysteine,

  • anxiolytics,

  • nutritional support (described above).

The result of treatment depends on how early you have started it. If it has been initiated from the very start of the illness, then the recovery might be quite positive. However, there are still the risks that you’ll never reach the same growth and weight potential.

There can be serious complications when treatment is delayed, including coma, shock, and permanent mental and physical disabilities.


Getting treatment early generally leads to good results. Disorders usually resolve after early treatment. If the treatment is delayed, the overall health of the affected person is improved but physical (reduced) and intellectual (mental disabilities) abnormalities are feared. Without treatment or if treatment occurs too late, death is inevitable.


The best way to avoid any terrible complications and consequences is to prevent the disease. To do it, you need to get enough proteins and calories in order to have energy for growth and life maintaining. It is recommended that 10 to 35 percent of adults’ daily calories come from protein. Five to 20 percent of young children’s and 10 to 30 percent of older children and teenagers’ daily calories should come from protein.

Food, containing protein, includes:

  • meat,

  • grains,

  • milk,

  • seeds,

  • cheese,

  • nuts,

  • fish,

  • beans,

  • eggs,

  • soy.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) provided a priority programme known as GOBIF which stands for:

  1. Growth monitoring for easy detection of failure to thrive

  2. Oral rehydration therapy for treatment of diarrhoea

  3. Exclusive Breastfeeding

  4. Immunization to prevent infections

  5. Family planning


Summarily, Kwashiorkor is a life-threatening and debilitating form of malnutrition. It’s caused by a lack of protein in the diet.

Kwashiorkor is commonly seen in low- and lower-middle-income regions facing famine.

Kwashiorkor is easily treated with a change in diet and those who are treated early usually have a full recovery. You can prevent kwashiorkor by eating a balanced diet with enough carbohydrates, fat, and protein.

....making effort to "STAY WELL"


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