Anyone can experience a loss of appetite and for many different reasons. People may have less of a desire to eat, lose interest in food, or feel nausea at the idea of eating.
Alongside a loss of appetite, a person may also experience fatigue and weight loss if they are not eating enough food to sustain their body.
In this article, we look at what causes a loss of appetite, what it means, complications, and how to treat it.
Digestive issues may lead to a person losing their appetite.
A loss of appetite can be physical or psychological. It is often temporary due to factors such as infections or digestive issues, in which case appetite will come back when a person has recovered.
Some people may also lose their appetite as a symptom of a long-term medical condition, such as in the late stages of serious illness, including cancer. This is part of a condition that doctors call cachexia.
The medical term for a complete loss of appetite over a more extended period of time is anorexia. This is different to the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, which is a mental health issue.
Below, we look at the possible causes for a loss of appetite.
Common viral or bacterial infections, such as flu or gastroenteritis, are often to blame for appetite loss. A person’s appetite usually returns when they start to recover.
Common short-term causes of feeling a loss of appetite include:
- respiratory infections
- bacteria or viral infections
- an upset stomach
- digestive issues
- acid reflux
- food poisoning
- food intolerances
- a stomach bug or gastroenteritis
- hormonal imbalances
- medication side effects
- alcohol or drug use
People with pain in their mouths, such as sores, may also experience a loss of appetite if it becomes difficult to eat.
Long-term medical conditions can cause a loss of appetite for a range of reasons that vary depending on the cause. Loss of appetite can be related to lowered immune system function, feeling unwell, and having an upset stomach.
Medical conditions that can cause a loss of appetite include:
- digestive conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease
- a hormonal condition known as Addison’s disease
- chronic liver or kidney disease
- high calcium levels in the blood
- HIV and AIDS
- underactive thyroid or hypothyroidism
- overactive thyroid or hyperthyroidism
- heart failure
- stomach or colon cancer
Side effect of medications
A loss of appetite is a common side effect of many medications, along with other digestive issues, such as constipation or diarrhea. This is common when medications pass through a person’s stomach and digestive tract.
Medications and treatments that often cause a loss of appetite include:
- some antibiotics
- radiation therapy to the stomach area
If people have recently undergone major surgery, they may experience a loss of appetite after the operation. This feeling can be partly related to anesthesia drugs.
Using drugs recreationally, such as cocaine, cannabis, and amphetamines can also cause a loss of appetite.
Psychological factors and mental health conditions can have a significant impact on a person’s appetite. These can include:
- panic attacks
- eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa
A loss of appetite can also be more common in older adults. This can be due to increased use of medications and changes in the body as it ages. These changes can affect:
- the digestive system
- the hormones
- the sense of taste or smell
A loss of appetite or unexpected weight loss can sometimes be a symptom of certain cancers, such as pancreatic, ovarian, or stomach cancer.
Alongside a loss of appetite, people may experience the following symptoms:
- stomach pains
- feeling full quickly
- yellowing of the skin or eyes
- blood in their stools
If people experience any of these symptoms, they should see a doctor who will be able to find out the underlying cause.
A person should see a doctor if they are vomiting for more than a day and have a complete loss of appetite.
People with serious medical conditions may experience a loss of appetite that can be due to the illness itself or as a side effect of treatments, such as chemotherapy treatment for cancers.
Some people in the later stages of serious illnesses may experience cachexia.
Cachexia is the term for weight loss, muscle wastage, and general ill-health caused by chronic, life-limiting illnesses.
People with cachexia can get nutritional advice from their doctor who can help create a nutritional plan to make sure they get the necessary calories and nutrients.
A person with a serious illness should see their doctor if they have a complete loss of appetite for a day or more or any of the following:
- vomiting for a day or longer
- inability to keep liquids down
- pain when trying to eat
- irregular urination
A doctor may prescribe certain medications to help increase appetite and reduce other symptoms, for example, nausea.
If depression or anxiety are causing people to experience a loss of appetite, talking therapies and sometimes antidepressants can help.
If a doctor thinks a specific medication is a reason for a loss of appetite, they may be able to change the dosage or the medication.
People may find it easier to eat several smaller meals a day instead of three bigger ones.
Aim to make these meals high in calories and protein to make sure the body is getting plenty of nutrients and energy. People may also find having liquid meals, such as smoothies and protein drinks, easier to take.
Adding herbs, spices, or other flavorings to meals may also encourage people to eat more easily. Eating meals in relaxing or social settings may make eating more enjoyable.
People can also keep drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Gentle exercise, such as a short walk, may sometimes increase appetite as well.
A doctor will look at all the symptoms a person is experiencing, and use these to work out the possible cause of their loss of appetite.
A doctor may examine a person’s abdomen by feeling with their hand for any unusual bloating, lumps, or tenderness. This can help them find out if a gastrointestinal disorder is causing a loss of appetite.
A doctor may also carry out tests to help them work out the cause. Tests can include:
- blood tests
- an abdominal X-ray
- an endoscopy, where a camera enables doctors to look inside the body
It is important to find out the reason for a loss of appetite, as it can lead to complications without treatment.
A continued loss of appetite can cause weight loss and malnutrition. It is vital for people to find out the reason for their loss of appetite, as leaving it untreated can be serious.
People can talk to a doctor if they have a loss of appetite for a prolonged period. If they notice any unexpected or rapid weight loss, they should also see their doctor.
An individual should seek medical help if they notice any other symptoms alongside a loss of appetite, such as:
- stomach pain
- shortness of breath
- a rapid or irregular heartbeat
People can experience a loss of appetite for a wide range of reasons. Some of these are short-term, including colds, food poisoning, other infections, or the side effects of medication. Others are to do with long-term medical conditions, such as diabetes, cancer, or life-limiting illnesses.
Appetite loss often comes with feelings of fatigue or nausea. If a person is worried about a loss of appetite they should tell their doctor, also mentioning all other symptoms.
Treatments for appetite loss will depend on the cause. People may benefit from eating small, regular meals instead of three large meals, and liquid meals are often more palatable.