Unexplained weight loss is a decrease in body weight, when you did not try to lose the weight on your own.
Many people gain and lose weight. Unintentional weight loss is loss of 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) or 5% of your normal body weight over 6 to 12 months or less without knowing the reason.
A loss of appetite may be due to:
- Feeling depressed
- Cancer, even when other symptoms are not present
- Chronic infection such as AIDS
- Chronic illness, such as COPD or Parkinson disease
- Drugs, including chemotherapy drugs, and thyroid medicines
- Drug abuse such as amphetamines and cocaine
- Stress or anxiety
Chronic digestive system problems that decrease the amount of calories and nutrients your body absorbs, including:
- Diarrhea and other infections that last a long time, such as parasites
- Chronic inflammation of the pancreas
- Removal of part of the small intestine
- Overuse of laxatives
Other causes such as:
- Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa that have not been diagnosed yet
- Diabetes that has not been diagnosed
- Overactive thyroid gland
Your health care provider may suggest changes in your diet and an exercise program depending on the cause of your weight loss.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if:
- You or a family member loses more weight than is considered healthy for their age and height.
- You have lost more than 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) or 5% of your normal body weight over 6 to 12 months or less, and you do not know the reason.
- You have other symptoms in addition to the weight loss.
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
The provider will do a physical exam and check your weight. You will be asked questions about your medical history and symptoms, including:
- How much weight have you lost?
- When did the weight loss begin?
- Has the weight loss occurred quickly or slowly?
- Are you eating less?
- Are you eating different foods?
- Are you exercising more?
- Have you been sick?
- Do you have any dental problems or mouth sores?
- Do you have more stress or anxiety than usual?
- Have you vomited? Did you make yourself vomit?
- Are you fainting?
- Do you have occasional uncontrollable hunger with palpitations, tremor, or sweating?
- Have you had constipation or diarrhea?
- Do you have increased thirst or are you drinking more?
- Are you urinating more than usual?
- Have you lost any hair?
- What medicines are you taking?
- Do you feel sad or depressed?
- Are you pleased or concerned with the weight loss?
You may need to see a dietitian for nutrition advice.
Loss of weight; Losing weight without trying; Unexplained weight loss
Manary MJ, Trehan I. Protein-energy malnutrition. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 203.
McQuaid KR. Approach to the patient with gastrointestinal disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 123.
Seller RH, Symons AB. Weight gain and weight loss. In: Seller RH, Symons AB, eds. Differential Diagnosis of Common Complaints. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 36.
Ziegler TR. Malnutrition: assessment and support. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 204.
Review Date 1/16/2021
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.