By Medicover Hospitals / 9 Feb 2021
Unexplained weight loss or weight loss without trying - especially if it is significant or persistent - can be a sign of an underlying medical condition. When unexplained weight loss becomes a medical problem is not exact. But many doctors agree that a medical evaluation is necessary if you lose more than 5% of your weight in six months to a year, especially if you are an elderly person.
- What is an unexplained weight loss?
- When to visit a Doctor?
What is an unexplained weight loss?
Unexplained weight loss is a noticeable decrease in body weight that occurs even if the person is not trying to lose weight. Weight loss is not because of changes in diet, exercise, or lifestyle. Weight loss of five percent of body weight in a period of 6 to 12 months is considered "unexplained." Unintentional weight loss can be extremely distressing, especially when you Lose a relatively massive amount and do not know why.
Unintentional weight reduction is often the result of an underlying persistent clinical condition. However, short-term illnesses like the flu or the common cold can also cause weight loss due to abdominal discomfort.
- An overactive or underactive thyroid gland. The thyroid gland helps regulate body temperature and control your heart rate and metabolism (the process that converts the food you eat into energy).
- Heart failure
- Addison's disease, a condition in which the adrenal glands, which are found in the upper part of the kidneys, do not make enough of the hormones cortisol and aldosterone.
- Parkinson's disease
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as a peptic ulcer or ulcerative colitis.
- Dental problems
- Depression or anxiety
- Side effects of prescription drugs
- Celiac disease (gluten allergy)
- A parasitic infection
- Drug abuse
- Undiagnosed eating disorders
- Swelling of the pancreas
- Alcohol abuse
- Dysphagia (trouble swallowing)
- Muscle loss or atrophy can lead to unexpected weight loss. The main symptom is muscle weakness. One of its limbs may appear even smaller than the other.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes your immune system to attack the lining of your joints, causing inflammation. Chronic infection can accelerate metabolism and decrease overall weight.
- Unexpected weight loss can be a symptom of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD is a term that encompasses many persistent inflammatory problems of the digestive tract. The most common kinds are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
Unexplained weight loss in women vs men:
Anyone can experience unexplained weight loss, regardless of gender. However, whether a person is male or female can increase the risk of certain conditions that can cause this symptom. Adult women who are between the ages of 25 and 29 or older than 35 have a significantly higher risk of Crohn's disease than men. After age 45, men have a substantially higher risk of ulcerative colitis than women.
Men have a higher rate of the following compared to women:
- Pancreatic cancer
- Lung cancer
If you've got unintentional weight loss, your physician will first take a cautious history, search for chance factors for plenty of clinical conditions, after which carry out a physical exam. Depending on the findings, your doctor may recommend more tests and radiological studies to try to track your weight loss. Consider when the weight loss started. Also, take note of any other symptoms you have experienced at the time of weight loss. This will give your doctor useful information that can help him make a diagnosis.
Unintentional weight loss is a symptom of numerous conditions. Your doctor should review your symptoms and any recent lifestyle changes you have made to find out exactly what is causing the weight loss.
Blood tests your doctor orders will depend on many factors, including any symptoms you have. Commonly performed tests include:
- Complete blood count (CBC): A complete blood count can reveal evidence of infections, anemia (which can be caused by many conditions that result in unintended weight loss), and more.
- Thyroid panel
- Liver function tests
- Kidney function tests
- Blood sugar (glucose)
- Inflammation tests: Non-specific tests may include a sedimentation rate and/or C-reactive protein
- Electrolytes: Sodium, potassium, and calcium can give clues to an underlying problem.
Endoscopy procedures, such as upper gastrointestinal endoscopy or colonoscopy, can look for evidence of gastrointestinal causes of weight loss.
An echocardiogram can be thought of as an ultrasound of the heart and helps diagnose many conditions, including infections present in the heart valves (infective endocarditis).
Imaging tests that may be helpful include:
- Chest X-ray (it is important to note that a plain chest X-ray can miss conditions such as lung cancer)
- Computed tomography (CT) scan of the chest or abdomen
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Positron emission tomography (PET) can look for evidence of cancer metastasis.
If you have a nutritional deficiency, your doctor can refer you to a dietitian or design a diet plan to help correct the deficiency. A deficiency because of a digestive disorder, comprising inflammatory bowel disease, may also require a specialized food plan during times of inflammation that will help you get the nutrients you need. This can include taking over-the-counter supplements.
Your physician will probably prescribe medicine if a hormonal disorder is causing accidental weight reduction.
You can correct unintentional weight loss due to general illnesses like the flu, the common cold, or food poisoning with bed rest, increased fluids, and medications used to calm your stomach and return to your normal diet when you feel better.
If your doctor suspects that your unintentional weight loss may be because of a more serious condition, such as cancer, you may undergo some tests to learn more.
Regardless of the cause, steps should also be taken to treat weight loss. When a cause is determined, weight loss itself sometimes takes a backseat. If it's you, be sure to talk to your doctor about how you should treat this symptom. Palliative care teams do a brilliant job addressing issues that aren't at once associated with cancer (for example, chemotherapy or radiation therapy), comprising accidental weight reduction.
When to visit a Doctor?
If you're dropping weight without trying, it's far more important to make an appointment with your doctor, even in case you assume there's a reason for your weight reduction. It is important to be your advocate and continue to ask the "why" question if you don't think you have an adequate explanation.
While body weight can fluctuate naturally, a person should contact a doctor if they lose over 5% of their initial body weight in 6 to 12 months without making any changes to their exercise routine or diet.
A doctor can diagnose the underlying cause of unexplained weight loss by conducting a physical exam and reviewing a person's medical history.
They may also use blood tests, including hormone panels or imaging studies, to rule out specific medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism, RA, or cancer.
Many of the conditions that can lead to unintentional weight loss are difficult to diagnose in the early stages, and sometimes multiple blood tests or imaging studies are needed to define the cause.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Possible serious risks include gallstones, which occur in 12% to 25% of people who lose large amounts of weight over several months, and by drinking plenty of fluids dehydration can be avoided.
Your body weight can fluctuate regularly, but the persistent and involuntary loss of more than 5% of your weight over 6 to 12 months is often a cause for concern. Losing that much weight can be a sign of malnutrition, where a person's diet does not contain the proper amount of nutrients.
According to the American Cancer Society, unexplained weight loss is often the first noticeable symptom of cancers of the esophagus, pancreas, stomach, and lung. Other cancers, consisting of ovarian cancer, are more likely to cause weight loss when a tumor grows huge enough to press on the stomach.
The association between unexpected weight loss and cancer diagnosis in primary care - https://www.nature.com/articles/s41416-020-0829-3
When should unexpected weight loss warrant further investigation to exclude cancer? - https://www.bmj.com/content/366/bmj.l5271.long
Prioritising primary care patients with unexpected weight loss for cancer investigation: diagnostic accuracy study - https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m2651
Unexpected decrease in plasma high density lipoprotein cholesterol with weight loss - https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article-abstract/32/10/2016/4692023