Anorexia and Cachexia


  • Cancer and other diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, can often cause a lack of appetite (anorexia) and weight loss with muscle wasting (cachexia)
  • These are often accompanied by fatigue
  • The process of anorexia/cachexia is complex and involves numerous metabolic changes
  • Anorexia/cachexia is present in up to 80% of patients with cancer
  • Children with solid tumours are more likely to develop cachexia than children with haematological malignancies
  • Seeing a child not eating may be very distressing for the family


(see Foreword)

  • A good history and clinical assessment is important to try and identify any reversible cause of the anorexia/cachexia
    • Assess appetite
    • Assess ability/difficulty in swallowing and chewing
    • Identify any other symptoms such as pain, constipation, depression, or nausea and vomiting that may be causing decreased appetite
    • Examine the mouth for any sores, lesions or infection
  • Treatable causes of anorexia/cachexia include:
    • Ongoing pain
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Depression
    • Oral problems
      • Dry mouth
      • Mucositis secondary to chemotherapy
      • Thrush/candidiasis
      • Oral herpes
    • Gastrointestinal motility problems
      • Reflux oesophagitis
      • Gastric stasis
      • Constipation
  • As in adults: evaluate possible correctable conditions that affect appetite and feeding such as nausea, pain, oral conditions, constipation and depression


  • Consider treatment of the underlying cause if one is identifiable

Consider if patient is well enough to benefit

Nonpharmacological Approaches

  • Patient and family education
  • Eliminate dietary restrictions
  • Encourage patient to eat their favourite foods

Pharmacological Approaches

  • Ensure good pain and nausea/vomiting control, treat constipation
  • Stimulate appetite
  • As in adults: corticosteroids may help appetite. However, because of potential significant adverse side effects they should probably not be used if anorexia/cachexia is the only symptom they might benefit


  • Increasing calorie intake is unlikely to increase body weight and quality of life in advanced cancer cachexia


  • Despite the appearance of malnutrition, anorexia/cachexia is usually not simply reversed with improved nutrition
  • Aggressive feeding can often make symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and pain worse
  • Educating the family that wasting is a part of the disease process and not the result of the family not providing enough nutrition for the patient is important
  • Anorexia can cause significant anxiety and distress for family members and caregivers who may not understand that loss of appetite is a common symptom of dying
  • There is no evidence that providing nutritional support either enterally or parenterally decreases morbidity or mortality in terminally ill patients
  • Smaller, more frequent meals of the child’s favourite foods may help
  • Small plates and using straws may also help


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