Written by Jacquelyn Cafasso | Published on August 15, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What is Kwashiorkor?

Kwashiorkor is the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in developing countries. It is a form of malnutrition caused by not getting enough protein in your diet.

Every cell in your body contains protein. You need protein in your diet for your body to repair cells and make new cells. A healthy body regenerates cells in this manner constantly. Protein is also important for growth during childhood and pregnancy.

Foods that contain protein include meat, milk, cheese, fish, eggs, soy, beans, nuts, seeds, and some types of grains like quinoa.

This condition is rarely found in the United States.

Children who develop kwashiorkor may not grow or develop properly. It is a very serious condition and can be life-threatening if not treated.

What Causes Kwashiorkor?

Kwashiorkor is caused by not eating enough protein. It is most common in countries where there is limited food supply or in places with low levels of education. The disease is most frequently found in children and infants in Africa and Central America. It is especially common in developing countries that are experiencing:

  • famine
  • political unrest
  • natural disasters, such as earthquakes, landslides, hurricanes and floods

These are all events that can lead to lack of food supply.

This condition is rare in the United States because most people are able to eat enough protein. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), if kwashiorkor does occur in the United States, it is typically a sign of child abuse or neglect (NIH).

What Are the Symptoms of Kwashiorkor?

The symptoms of kwashiorkor include:

  • change in skin and hair color (reddish-orange color)
  • fatigue
  • diarrhea
  • loss of muscle mass
  • failure to grow or gain weight
  • edema (swelling)
  • damaged immune system, which can lead to more frequent and severe infections
  • irritability
  • flaky rash
  • large belly that sticks out
  • shock

How Is Kwashiorkor Diagnosed?

Your doctor may notice an enlarged liver and swelling (edema) if you or your child has kwashiorkor. They may order tests to measure a patient’s level of protein and sugar in the blood. These tests are usually done on a blood or urine sample.

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

  • arterial blood gas
  • blood urea nitrogen (BUN)
  • blood levels of creatinine
  • blood levels of potassium
  • urinalysis
  • complete blood count (CBC)

How Is Kwashiorkor Treated?

Kwashiorkor can be corrected by eating more protein and more calories overall, especially if treatment is started early.

You may first be given more calories in the form of carbohydrates, sugars, and fats. Once these calories provide energy, you are given foods with proteins. Foods must be introduced and calories should be increased slowly because you have been without proper nutrition for a long period, and your body may need to adjust to the increased intake.

Your doctor will also recommend vitamin and mineral supplements.

What Are the Complications of Kwashiorkor?

Even with treatment, children who have had kwashiorkor may never reach their full growth and height potential. If treatment comes too late, a child may have permanent physical and mental problems.

If left untreated, the condition can lead to coma, shock, or death.

Outlook: What to Expect After Treatment

The long-term outlook depends on how soon treatment is started.

Treatment that begins in the early stages of kwashiorkor generally produces a good recovery. However, you may never reach your full growth and height potential. If the treatment is delayed, your condition will still improve, but the mental and physical impairments may be permanent. The disease can be fatal if treatment is started too late.

Prevention: Eating the Right Amount of Protein

The condition can be prevented by making sure you eat enough calories and protein-rich foods. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that 10 to 35 percent of a person’s daily calories come from protein (CDC).

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