- Celiac disease
- Crohn disease
- Damage from radiation treatments
- Overgrowth of bacteria in the small bowel
- Parasite or tapeworm infection
- Surgery that removes all or part of the small intestine
- Cystic fibrosis
- Infections or swelling of the pancreas
- Trauma to the pancreas
- Surgery to remove part of the pancreas
- Bloating, cramping, and gas
- Bulky stools
- Chronic diarrhea
- Fatty stools (steatorrhea)
- Key vitamins and minerals, such as iron, folic acid, and vitamin B12
- Enough carbohydrates, proteins, and fats
Malabsorption involves problems with the body's ability to take in nutrients from food.
Many diseases can cause malabsorption. Most often, malabsorption involves problems absorbing certain sugars, fats, proteins, or vitamins. It can also involve an overall problem with absorbing food.
Problems or damage to the small intestine that may lead to problems absorbing important nutrients. These include:
Enzymes produced by the pancreas help absorb fats and other nutrients. A decrease of these enzymes makes it harder to absorb fats and certain nutrients. Problems with the pancreas may be caused by:
Some of the other causes of malabsorption include:
In children, current weight or rate of weight gain is often much lower than that of other children of similar age and gender. This is called failure to thrive. The child may not grow and develop normally.
Adults may also have failure to thrive, with weight loss, muscle wasting, weakness, and even problems thinking.
Changes in the stools are often present, but not always.
Changes in the stools may include:
Exams and Tests
Your health care provider will do an exam. Tests that may be done include:
Treatment depends on the cause and is aimed at relieving symptoms and ensuring the body receives enough nutrients.
A high-calorie diet may be tried. It should supply:
If needed, injections of some vitamins and minerals or special growth factors will be given. Those with damage to the pancreas may need to take pancreatic enzymes. Your provider will prescribe these if necessary.
Medicines to slow down the normal movement of the intestine can be tried. This may allow food to remain in the intestine longer
If the body is not able to absorb enough nutrients, total parenteral nutrition (TPN) is tried. It will help you or your child get nutrition from a special formula through a vein in the body. Your provider will select the right amount of calories and TPN solution. Sometimes, you can also eat and drink while getting nutrition from TPN.
The outlook depends on what is causing the malabsorption.
Long-term malabsorption can result in:
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider if you have symptoms of malabsorption.
Prevention depends on the condition causing malabsorption.
Högenauer C, Hammer HF. Maldigestion and malabsorption. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 104.
Semrad CE. Approach to the patient with diarrhea and malabsorption. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 140.
- Review date:
- November 05, 2016
- Reviewed by:
- Subodh K. Lal, MD, gastroenterologist with Gastrointestinal Specialists of Georgia, Austell, GA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- 2008 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.