Treating malnutrition

Treatment for malnutrition depends on the underlying cause and how malnourished a person is. You may be treated at home or in a care home by a dietitian or other healthcare professional. In some cases, you might need to go into hospital.

When you are ill

During illness, people don't have their usual appetite. They can lose weight unintentionally.

Maintaining weight or minimising weight loss when you’re unwell can help you:

  • cope with any treatment you might be having
  • keep up your strength to undertake everyday activities
  • help you recover more quickly

Treatment at home

If you're treated at home, the healthcare professional helping you will discuss changes you should make to your diet.

They will develop a nutritional care plan with input from yourself or a member of your family. This plan will depend on your individual circumstances, but it's likely you'll be advised to gradually increase your intake of energy (calories), protein, carbohydrates, fluids, and vitamins and minerals.

The aim is to reduce your risk of developing complications, such as infections, and to avoid hospital admission.

You may also be advised to take special nutritional supplements which can increase your energy and protein intake. You'll be helped to set targets and your progress will be regularly monitored.

If you can't 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.

Treatment in hospital

You'll be seen by a number of healthcare professionals if you're admitted to hospital with malnutrition or suspected malnutrition.

They may include:

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

Your ability to eat or drink will be assessed. If you don't have problems swallowing food, dietary changes may be recommended, with or without nutritional supplements. A nutritional care plan can be developed with input from yourself or a family member, if appropriate.

Your malnutrition may need to be checked every week while you're in hospital.

If you're unable to swallow food, you may need a feeding tube. There are two types of feeding tubes:

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

Parenteral nutrition

If a feeding tube isn't suitable, it may be necessary to deliver nutrition directly into your bloodstream through a drip into your vein. This is known as parenteral nutrition and it allows you to receive nutrients that you can't get through eating.

You'll be prescribed a solution that's tailored to your individual dietary needs. The solution may include a combination of nutrients, including carbohydrates, sugars, proteins, fats, electrolytes (salts), vitamins and minerals.

Additional treatment

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

The amount of time you'll spend in hospital will depend on your general state of health and what's causing your malnutrition. In some cases it may be possible to return home while receiving treatment.

Treatment in a care home

If you think you or a family member is at risk of being malnourished, you should:

  • have your risk of malnutrition screened within seven days of admission to a care home, unless otherwise indicated
  • have your risk of malnutrition checked every month while you're in the care home
  • have a nutritional care plan developed, with input from you or a family member, if your risk of malnutrition is medium to high
  • be assessed to see if you need help with eating and drinking and if necessary, this help should be provided by staff, a volunteer or a family member, if appropriate

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