How Do I Recognize the Symptoms of Starvation?

Fatigue and extreme cold are side effects of starvation.
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  • Written By: Rebecca Harkin
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2014
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Starvation is a serious condition and will produce recognizable symptoms. It will impact behavior by causing irritability and lethargy. Food deprivation will impact the body with obvious symptoms of starvation, such as a gaunt body, muscle atrophy, bloated stomach, dizziness, swelling in the extremities, constant chilliness, and unhealthy gums, teeth, hair, nails, and skin. Less obvious symptoms are poor wound healing, prolonged infections, pain associated with gall stones, and aberrant or absent menstrual cycles in women.

There are many fairly obvious starvation symptoms. The most noticeable symptoms are irritability, lethargy, and difficulty paying attention. People who are starving are often preoccupied with thoughts of food and have very little energy. The combination of the distraction and lack of energy can produce irritability.

After several days of starvation, physiological symptoms will begin to appear as the cardiovascular system becomes impaired by the lack of vitamins and minerals and dropping blood pressure. Decreased blood pressure will reduce circulation and make the person feel cold in situations where others are not cold and have cold hands and feet. Starving people may also complain of dizziness, appear lightheaded upon standing, or faint. Diminished circulation will eventually cause the hands, feet, and ankles to swell.


Prolonged malnourishment will begin to physically impact the body with obvious symptoms. The undernourished person will become extremely thin, bones will protrude through the skin, muscles will waste away, and the belly may become distended. Other symptoms of starvation are dry, scaly skin, slow-growing nails that split or break easily and limp, thin hair. In addition, gums will bleed easily and teeth will become severely decayed.

There are also several less obvious symptoms of starvation. Wound healing and immune responses in a famished body is a low physiological priority, so you may see sluggish wound healing, persistent skin sores or rashes, and long-lasting infections. The rapid weight loss that accompanies starvation can produce gall stones and the symptoms associated with gall stones, such as pain in the right shoulder, back, on the top right side of the belly, and near the breastbone. Malnourished people with gall stones will frequently touch, press, or rub these areas. Protracted malnourishment may cause irregular or absent menstrual cycles in women.

To treat starvation, small, frequent, well-balanced meals need to be gradually introduced to allow the stomach and body to begin to processing food again. Eventually, larger meals and between meal snacks that are high in calories and protein can be routinely administered. Vitamin and mineral supplementation can begin once regular food is well tolerated. It is helpful to assess the extent of the malnourishment and monitor improvement by making a baseline record of weight, running blood tests to check deficiencies and using computed tomography scans to review any organ damage.


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Post 1

I have not eaten in the last three weeks, but I still feel fine. My body weight was 18 stone, nine pounds, but last time I checked it was 17 stone, four pounds. Oh, I am 1.87m tall. How much longer before the effects will get serious? I have had some dizzy spells when standing up, but I feel fine.

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