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Malnutrition - Treating malnutrition

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Treatment for malnutrition depends on the underlying cause and how severely malnourished you are.

You may be given advice to use at home, or you may be treated at home under the supervision of a dietitian or other qualified health professional. In some cases, hospital admission is necessary.

Treatment at home

If you are treated under supervision at home, the healthcare professional helping you will discuss with you changes you should make to your diet.

Recommended diet plans will depend on your individual circumstances, but it is likely you will be advised to gradually increase your intake of energy (calories), protein, carbohydrates, fluids, minerals and vitamins.

You may also be advised to take special oral nutritional supplements in addition to these dietary changes. These supplements can increase your energy and protein intake, reducing the risk of complications (such as infections) and hospital admission.

You will be helped to set targets and your progress will be regularly monitored.

Depending on the cause of your malnutrition, you may need additional help. For example, you may benefit from help from a carer if poor mobility makes it difficult for you to shop for food or cook. Read more about getting care at home.

If you have problems swallowing food or drink (dysphagia) you may be referred to a speech and language therapist (SLT) who can assess your swallowing and offer advice about a special diet that can help.

If you cannot eat enough to meet your body's needs, an artificial method of feeding may be required, such as a feeding tube. These are fitted in hospital but can be used at home (see below). 

Treatment in hospital

If you are admitted to hospital with malnutrition you may be seen by a number of different health professionals who will be involved in your care. This may include:

  • a doctor who specialises in treating digestive conditions (a gastroenterologist)
  • a dietitian
  • a nurse specialising in nutrition 
  • a social worker

If you don't have any problems swallowing food, you may be treated with dietary changes, with or without nutritional supplements.

If you are unable to swallow food, you may require an artificial feeding method, such as a feeding tube. There are two types of feeding tubes:

  • a nasogastric tube - a tube passed down your nose and into your stomach
  • a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) tube - a tube surgically placed directly into your stomach through your abdomen (tummy)

If a feeding tube is not suitable, nutrition directly into your vein (parenteral nutrition) may be necessary. See treating dysphagia for more information about these treatments.

You may also require additional treatment for the underlying cause of your malnutrition.

The amount of time you will spend in hospital depends on your general state of health and the underlying cause of your malnutrition. It is often possible to return home while receiving treatment.

Treating children

In the UK, many cases of malnutrition in children are caused by long-term health conditions and hospital treatment is often required.

Childhood malnutrition can sometimes be treated by giving your child additional nutrients to increase their intake of energy and protein. This may involve taking special supplements and eating foods high in energy and nutrients.

The underlying cause of their malnutrition may also need to be treated.

Severely malnourished children need to be fed and rehydrated with great care and so cannot be given a normal diet straight away.

Once their condition stabilises, they can gradually be introduced to a normal diet.

Malnutrition due to lack of food is a child protection issue, meaning police and social services need to be informed.

Medical Review: February 04, 2013
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