What are the complications of severe malnutrition?

These are usually seen in kwashiorkor and marasmic kwashiorkor:

  • Serious infections, especially septicaemia or pneumonia. Gastroenteritis, tuberculosis, measles and AIDS often precipitate kwashiorkor.
  • Hypoglycaemia due to loss of energy stores
  • Hyothermia
  • Heart failure due to a small, weak heart
  • Bleeding, usually purpura
  • Anaemia due to protein and iron deficiency
  • Electrolyte imbalances, especially potassium deficiency
  • Malabsorption
  • Tremors (‘kwashi shakes’)
  • Sudden death

About 25% of children with kwashiorkor die despite treatment. The long-term effect of severe malnutrition on growth and mental development remain uncertain as these children are also affected by a deprived environment.

Hypoglycaemia, hypothermia, infection and heart failure are the main causes of death in severe malnutrition.

Children with kwashiorkor have a low serum albumin, potassium, magnesium, sodium, copper and zinc. Also low glucose, transferrin and clotting factors.

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