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Marasmus: Signs, Symptoms, Risks and More

Medically reviewed by Regina Victoria Boyles, MD · Pediatrics

Written by Jen Mallari · Updated Jun 11, 2023

Malnutrition is a common health condition, especially in places where there is a lack of food and water due to drought, famine or extreme poverty. While we think of malnutrition as a condition brought about by hunger, it is important to note that it is not just one kind of condition. It actually has several types which can be classified as either marasmus or kwashiorkor. We will be focusing on marasmus, which is a severe kind of malnutrition–involving a number of macronutrients–its symptoms, and complications of marasmus.

Signs & Symptoms

Symptoms of Marasmus 

There are several signs people can look out for in order to determine if a person may possibly have marasmus. This list details some of the common symptoms:

  • Growth failure is evident.
  • The person has an “old man” face (wizened appearance).
  • The eyes appear to be sunken. 
  • The person displays an increase in appetite and appear very hungry
  • The flabby muscles of the body are being wasted and appear to be wrinkled (due to fat loss).
  • The person exhibits changes in their mood (irritability, weakness, lethargy).
  • The skin and hair may undergo mild changes.
  • The head appears to be bigger than the body in terms of proportions.

Risks & Complications

Risk Factors and Complications of Marasmus 

Marasmus can affect almost everyone, no matter what their gender may be. However, it has been observed in other parts of the world that women tend to get diagnosed with marasmus more than men. Thus, the statistics show that women are at an increased risk of getting marasmus. 

The complications of marasmus mostly result from the treatments themselves. For example, the treatment of marasmus may cause refeeding syndrome. (Refeeding syndrome involves fatal, rapid shifts of electrolytes and other fluids inside a malnourished person’s body due to artificial feeding.) 

Other complications of marasmus may include short-term sequelae and long-term sequelae.

Short-Term Sequelae Complications of Marasmus:

  • Hypothermia 
  • Infection in the urinary tract 
  • Cardiac failure and arrhythmia 
  • Abnormalities in regards to the electrolytes
  • Development of refeeding syndrome
  • Overwhelming infections
  • Sepsis 
  • Endocrinological dysfunction (the hormone levels are either too high or low) 
  • Gastrointestinal malabsorption 

Long-Term Sequelae Complications of Marasmus:

It is likely that people with marasmus are experiencing economic hardship. Research shows that being malnourished can predict difficulties in life due to poor education and a lower income. Moreover, people who are malnourished tend to be shorter in height and weigh less than others. 


What Are the Causes of Marasmus?

The primary cause of marasmus is the lack of protein and other macronutrient intake. This usually occurs in children who do not have the means to afford food with sufficient nutritional content. As a result, children suffering from malnutrition exhibit poor performance in physical activities and have the following characteristics:

  • They show massive weight loss.
  • Their basal metabolic growth is poor.
  • Growth is stunted.
  • They become lethargic.

Marasmus can also cause emesis, diarrhea, and burns. Moreover, severe malnutrition (marasmus) has the capability of causing death due to infections, electrolyte imbalance, and heart failure. 


How to Treat Marasmus 

The medications for marasmus include prophylactic antibiotics. This is a malnutrition-induced immunodeficiency compensation medication. Apart from this, other treatments can also be used such as protein refeeding (this is when a person gradually starts to consume protein) and correcting glycemic hydration and electrolyte abnormalities. 

It is imperative to know that rapid protein refeeding will lead to negative effects to the body such as overwhelming an already damaged liver. Ultimately, this may lead to liver failure. 

People with marasmus should receive treatment in a hospital or in their community, for as long it is done in coordination with healthcare providers. It has been shown that community-based treatment has more promising results when it comes to treating uncomplicated severe malnutrition compared to being treated in a hospital. 


How to Prevent Complications of Marasmus

In order to prevent relapse of marasmus, it is crucial to make follow-ups on those who have been previously diagnosed with the condition. Furthermore, another way to prevent marasmus is to educate mothers on the importance of breastfeeding and supplemental feeding as these are the main source of nutrients for infants. 

Of course, one of the most effective ways of preventing marasmus is the provision of uncontaminated drinking water and food. 


Marasmus can very well be a lethal health condition if left untreated, so it is essential to educate yourself about this condition and learn how to prevent it. That way, no one will have to suffer the consequences of being diagnosed with this severe condition. 

Learn more about Healthy Eating here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Regina Victoria Boyles, MD


Written by Jen Mallari · Updated Jun 11, 2023

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