Marasmus is a form of severe malnutrition. It can occur in anyone who has severe malnutrition, but it usually occurs in children. It typically occurs in developing countries. Marasmus can be life-threatening, but you can get treatment for it.

The main symptom of marasmus is being underweight. Children with this condition have lost a lot of muscle mass and subcutaneous fat. Subcutaneous fat is the layer of fat just under the skin. Dry skin and brittle hair are also symptoms of marasmus.

In children with marasmus, the following can also occur:

  • chronic diarrhea
  • respiratory infections
  • intellectual disability
  • stunted growth

Seriously malnourished children may look older and have little to no energy or enthusiasm for anything. Marasmus can also make children short-tempered and irritable, but this is usually a more common symptom of kwashiorkor.

Kwashiorkor is another form of serious malnutrition. Kwashiorkor causes a buildup of fluid in the body that can cause the face to become round and the belly to become distended.

Learn more: Understanding kwashiorkor »

Nutrient deficiency is the main cause of marasmus. It occurs in children that don’t ingest enough protein, calories, carbohydrates, and other important nutrients. This is usually due to poverty and a scarcity of food.

There are several types of malnutrition. A malnourished child may have something other than marasmus. Among the more common types of malnutrition are serious deficiencies in:

  • iron
  • iodine
  • zinc
  • vitamin A

Growing up in a developing country is a risk factor for marasmus. Areas that have famines or high rates of poverty have higher percentages of children with marasmus. Nursing mothers may be unable to produce enough breast milk due to malnutrition. This affects their babies.

Viral, bacterial, and parasitic infections can cause children to take in too few nutrients. Regions with high disease rates and insufficient medical care may also have other factors that reduce the chances of people having enough food to eat.

A doctor can often make a preliminary diagnosis of marasmus through a physical exam. Measurements, such as height and weight, can help determine whether a child has marasmus. When those measurements are well below the measurements that a healthy child of a particular age should have, marasmus may be the cause.

A lack of motion in a malnourished child may also help confirm a diagnosis of marasmus. Children with the condition tend to lack the energy or will to do anything.

Marasmus is difficult to diagnose using blood tests. This is because many children with marasmus also have infections that can affect blood test results.

Initial treatment of marasmus often includes dried skim milk powder mixed with boiled water. Later, the mixture can also include a vegetable oil such as sesame, casein, and sugar. Casein is milk protein. The oil increases the energy content and density of the mixture.

Once a child starts to recover, they should have a more balanced diet that meets their nutritional needs.

If dehydration is a problem because of diarrhea, rehydration should also be a priority. A child may not necessarily need fluids delivered intravenously. Oral hydration may be sufficient.

Infections are common among children with marasmus, so treatment with antibiotics or other medications is standard. Treating infections and any other health issues can help give them the best chance of recovery.

With proper nutrition and medical care, the outlook can be a positive one. Relief workers can provide food and healthcare to regions where marasmus and other malnutrition problems are common. The best outcomes occur when a child’s parents or guardians know about the importance of nutrition and how to prepare foods properly.

Healthy weight gain and growth can resume fairly quickly once a child with marasmus starts consuming more:

  • calories
  • protein
  • carbohydrates
  • other nutrients