Symptom: Unexplained weight loss

    Unexplained weight loss, or losing weight without trying — particularly if it's significant or persistent — may be a sign of an underlying medical disorder.

    The point at which unexplained weight loss becomes a medical concern is not exact. But many doctors agree that a medical evaluation is called for if you lose more than 5 percent of your weight in six months to a year, especially if you're an older adult. For example, a 5 percent weight loss in someone who is 160 pounds (72 kilograms) is 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms). In someone who is 200 pounds (90 kilograms), it's 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms).

    Your weight is affected by your calorie intake, activity level, overall health, age, nutrient absorption, and economic and social factors.

    Unexplained weight loss

    Usually, an unrecognized cancer will have other symptoms or abnormalities of laboratory tests, in addition to unexplained weight loss.

    Potential causes of unexplained weight loss include:

    1. Addison's disease (adrenal insufficiency)
    2. Cancer
    3. Celiac disease
    4. Changes in diet or appetite
    5. Changes in sense of smell
    6. Changes in sense of taste
    7. COPD
    8. Crohn's disease
    9. Dementia
    10. Dental problems
    11. Depression
    12. Diabetes
    13. Heart failure
    14. HIV/AIDS
    15. Hypercalcemia
    16. Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
    17. Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
    18. Medications
    19. Parkinson's disease
    20. Peptic ulcer
    21. Substance abuse (alcohol, cocaine, other)
    22. Tuberculosis
    23. Ulcerative colitis

    Causes shown here are commonly associated with this symptom. Work with your doctor or other health care professional for an accurate diagnosis.


    Your doctor will work with you to try to determine what's causing the weight loss. At first that will involve a thorough history, a physical examination and basic laboratory testing. Full body scans to look for hidden cancers are not usually helpful unless some other clue points in that direction.

    Sometimes, if the basic evaluation is negative, watchful waiting for a few months is a reasonable next step. You may need a special diet to prevent further weight loss or to regain lost pounds.


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