Diseases That Can Lead to Unexplained Weight Loss

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Sudden, noticeable weight loss can happen after a stressful event, although it can also be a sign of a serious illness.

It’s normal to lose a noticeable amount of weight after the stress of changing jobs, divorce, redundancy or bereavement.

Weight often returns to normal when you start to feel happier, after you’ve had time to grieve or get used to the change. Counselling and support may be needed to help you get to this stage.

Significant weight loss can also be the result of an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia. If you think you have an eating disorder, talk to someone you trust and consider speaking to your GP. There are also several organisations that can provide you with information and advice, such as the eating disorders charity Beat.

If your weight loss wasn’t due to one of the causes mentioned, and you didn’t lose weight through dieting or exercising, see your GP, as you may have an illness that needs treating.

The following information may give you a better idea of the cause of your weight loss, but don’t use it to diagnose yourself. Always see a GP for a proper diagnosis.


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Unexplained weight loss is one of 15 symptoms of cancer that are too often ignored. There are several types of cancer, such as leukemia, lung, pancreatic, breast, and colon, that are known to lead to unexplained weight loss,” says Eyal Meiri, MD, Interim Chief of Medical Oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Atlanta.

“There are many reasons that weight loss can occur with cancer,” he says. Some cancers cause a faster metabolism at rest, which burns more calories, while others may produce inflammatory proteins that can lead to weight loss and others may cause weight loss based on their location in the body.

For example, “some cases of pancreatic cancer may occur where the stomach empties so you feel full quickly and some esophageal cancers may cause swallowing issues which prevent you from eating and causes weight loss,” he says.

“If you have unexplained weight loss of more than 10 percent, something is going on,” he says. “Seek out your internist for an evaluation as there are many causes of unexplained weight loss that are unrelated to cancer.

” Cancer treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy often cause a decrease in appetite, and it can lead to side effects, including nausea, vomiting, and mouth sores that discourage eating, he says.


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Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, also known as AIDS, is a chronic, potentially life-threatening disease that’s caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). “HIV can make it harder for your body to absorb nutrients, which causes malnutrition and can lead to a decreased appetite,” says Lisa Ashe, DO, an internist in Washington, DC.

HIV/AIDS can also increase the risk of opportunistic infections that cause weight loss either through a decreased appetite or because it’s painful to eat. . While there’s no cure for HIV or AIDS, there are medications that can dramatically slow the progression of the disease, decrease the risk of infections, and allow you to live an otherwise healthy life.


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Unexplained weight loss could be a sign of a thyroid disease such as Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease that causes the thyroid gland to produce excessive amounts of the thyroid hormone. “Weight loss is usually one of a constellation of symptoms of Graves’ disease including heart palpitations, heat intolerance, hair loss, and insomnia,” says Caroline Korsten Messer, MD, endocrinologist, Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Graves’ disease is one cause of hyperthyroidism, but there are others that can also cause weight loss, she says. “A simple blood test can detect hyperthyroidism,” she says. The good news is that these conditions are all treatable.

Other causes of weight loss

  • Bowel Obstruction
  • Dental Problems
  • Infections (Parasites)
  • Malabsorption
  • Medications (Both Prescription and Nonprescription)

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