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Loss of appetite

Loss of appetite can be a symptom of many different conditions. It can often be due to a course of treatment, and its potential causes range from benign to very serious. If it persists, it can affect energy levels and general quality of life. 

  • Can sometimes be related to chronic conditions such as cancer
  • Dietitians can help with measures to combat potential weight loss
  • Cannot be cured with any specific medicines

A loss of appetite may warrant medical attention. Our GMC-registered clinicians are available to contact via our online video consultation service from 9.30am to 4.30pm, five days a week, should you wish to speak to them about loss of appetite and other possible symptoms.

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Possible causes

What causes a loss of appetite?

Our desire for sustenance is an essential part of life, as we need food to give the body the energy and nutrients it requires to function. There is usually an underlying reason as to a loss of appetite, be it medical or psychological. 

Losing your appetite is usually a short-term occurrence. For example, when you contract a viral illness or have food poisoning, it can often make the prospect of eating unappealing. 

A loss of appetite is also common when we experience a traumatic experience or stress. However, if it persists, it’s typically an indication of a potentially serious underlying condition.

It should be noted that long-term treatments may be accompanied by a loss in sense of taste; this can sometimes lead to withdrawal and isolation in social situations where eating is expected.

A loss of appetite may be caused by:

  • Certain medications, such as antidepressants and undergoing chemotherapy
  • Depression, stress or anxiety
  • Indigestion or problems with acid reflux
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis or coeliac disease
  • An underactive thyroid
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Chronic conditions such as various cancers, liver and kidney disease

Diagnosing the cause of loss of appetite

The process of diagnosing a loss of appetite can prove difficult, as there are numerous health conditions that may lead to it. A doctor will aim to rule out any potentially serious causes. 

Some symptoms can be indicative of a serious condition, and you should contact your GP urgently if you experience any of the following:

  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Having night sweats
  • Swelling of the stomach
  • Being out of breath and nauseous

It’s likely that a doctor will seek to establish what your previous medical history is, in terms of a loss of appetite; they will inquire as to how long the loss of appetite has lasted, and what other symptoms are accompanying it, if any.

Following this, a doctor will perform a simple examination, and may focus on the abdomen, to check for any signs of gastrointestinal issues. Depending on what the suspected cause is up until this point, a doctor may suggest conducting some tests for further investigation.

The most likely tests a doctor will recommend include blood tests, which can show if there is an infection or if anemia is present, as well as various other causes. Imaging tests such as an ultrasound or X-ray may also be performed.

It’s very important to see a doctor if your loss of appetite is persistent and you do not know why; an enduring loss of appetite may be dangerous and lead to malnutrition. You can speak to one of our GMC-registered doctors via our online video consultation service if you are concerned about symptoms. They are available between 9.30am and 4.30pm, Monday to Friday.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020
Types of Treatment

How is a loss of appetite treated?

Treatment for a loss of appetite depends on what the cause is. It can vary from simple dietary measures (if it’s triggered by medication or a pre-existing condition) to behavioural therapies (if the cause is psychological).

There are various medications that you can take for problems with acid reflux or indigestion. Over-the-counter medicines such as antacids or alginates can reduce the production of acid in the stomach. Proton-pump inhibitors, which are prescription medications, perform a similar role but are a long-term treatment option.

Autoimmune conditions, such as an underactive thyroid, require hormone replacement therapy. A medication called levothyroxine can increase production of thyroxine, which the body lacks when the thyroid is underactive.

Treatment for various inflammatory bowel conditions usually focuses on reducing inflammation in the gut, and increases periods of remission. A doctor can prescribe many different anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids, immunosuppressants, and azathioprine

If the loss of appetite is caused by a particular course of treatment, a doctor will often recommend seeing a dietician to help formulate a plan to cope with the difficulty of eating. They may suggest some of the following measures:

  • Eating small amounts often, instead of trying to eat big meals, which may seem daunting
  • Keeping healthy snacks with you so that you can slowly eat throughout the day. Nuts and dried fruit can provide sustenance in between meals.
  • When you do eat meals, ensure that you eat slowly and relax whilst doing so.
  • Smoothies, or other nourishing drinks, can be helpful for replacing meals

If your appetite is variable from one day to another, it’s important to try and eat more on days where your appetite is improved

Loss of appetite can occur for a variety of reasons, and in many cases, identifying the cause and addressing it is straightforward. However, if you are unsure and would like to speak to a doctor, you can do so using our online video consultation service. Our clinicians can issue advice about symptoms, prescriptions, and referral to specialists, where suitable. They are available from 9.30am-4.30pm, five days a week.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How long is it normal to lose your appetite for?

If the cause of a loss of appetite is due to a short-term condition such as gastroenteritis or flu, it may not last for more than a day or two.

However, loss of appetite can also persist for a longer period of time, especially if the cause is related to a chronic condition.

Is loss of appetite serious?

If it stems from minor infections and medicinal side effects, a loss of appetite is not usually serious, and your appetite will return to normal once the infection has cleared or a medication has been adjusted.

However, if a loss of appetite is both persistent and accompanied by symptoms such as weight loss, difficulty swallowing and swelling in the stomach, it could be an indication of a serious condition and require urgent medical attention.

Can I get treatment for loss of appetite?

Yes. In some cases, a doctor can help you to form a diet plan to cope with persistent loss of appetite. In other cases, the underlying condition will need to be treated for it to disappear.

How can I prevent loss of appetite?

Preventing loss of appetite is difficult as it is a natural bodily reaction to many different conditions. However, there are a few measures you can take to try and maintain appetite. Eating smaller meals more often and snacking healthily throughout the day can help to prevent it.

Can I speak to a doctor about loss of appetite?

Our GMC-registered clinicians can provide you with input about symptoms and treatment, and provide prescriptions and referral to specialists, where appropriate, via our online video consultation service. You can arrange to speak with them between 9.30am and 4.30pm, Monday to Friday.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020

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