A term applied to a number of conditions in which normal absorption of nutrients is impaired. Malabsorption causes disturbed intestinal function and disorders of the body due to deficiencies of substances necessary for health.

The body’s failure to absorb fat from the intestine produces offensive pale stools that are larger than normal and tend to float in water; sometimes there is diarrhea with colic, sometimes constipation. If the malady involves failure to absorb carbohydrates, the abdomen becomes enlarged and uncomfortable and there is a frothy diarrhea. Various deficiencies may show themselves. In children and infants there is failure to thrive and perhaps loss of weight.

Persons suffering from malabsorption are weak and may be anemic. Vitamin deficiencies may lead to rickets, tetany, a low level of calcium in the blood, dry skin, and sparse hair, sore mouth and tongue, and various neurological signs. If there is a loss of water and slats, there may be a low blood pressure, cramps, thirst, weakness, and abnormalities of sensation.

Malabsorption occurs in many conditions, ranging from diseases that block the lymphatic vessels draining the intestine to the operative removal of parts of the intestine or stomach. The best-known causes, however, are celiac disease, tropical sprue, Crohn’s disease, liver disease, chronic enteritis, infestation by worms, and atrophy (wasting away) of the stomach that leads to pernicious anemia. Diseases of the gallbladder and pancreas may produce malabsorption syndromes, as may the effects of radiation. In each case, treatment is directed at the underlying disease.

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