Cachexia: what it is, causes, symptoms, treatment and prevention

What is cachexia

Cachexia is a complex disease and is characterized by the patient’s weight loss, in addition to the loss of body mass and adipose tissue (responsible for storing fat in our system), usually related to chronic diseases, such as cancer or heart disease. Apparently speaking, it resembles malnutrition, with the difference that body mass cannot be replenished with food.

Disease through the centuries

The word cachexia is derived from the Greek “kakos”, which means bad, and “hexis”, which means appearance. Therefore, the disease literally means looking bad and has been known for centuries. Hippocrates, one of the most well-known figures in the history of Medicine in Ancient Greece, once wrote that “meat is consumed and becomes water, the abdomen is filled with water, the feet and legs swell, the shoulders, the collarbones, the chest and thighs melt… The disease is fatal. ”.

It is not known when cachexia was discovered to cause weight loss in the context of chronic heart disease, but its first documentation was made in 1860 by the French physicist Charles Mauriac, when he wrote that it is common to observe some secondary phenomena in patients, such as loss exponential weight.

Causes of Cachexia

Several diseases are associated with cachexia, such as:

  • Various types of cancer;
  • HIV;
  • Tuberculosis;
  • Congestive heart failure;
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD);
  • Cystic fibrosis;
  • Renal insufficiency;
  • Liver diseases (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic liver diseases);
  • Large and severe burns;
  • Visceral leishmaniasis;
  • Lesions of the lateral part of the hypothalamus (brain region);
  • Mercury poisoning;
  • Some autoimmune disorders.

It is estimated that the disease affects 5% to 15% of patients with chronic heart or kidney failure and 60% to 80% of patients with terminal cancer. In the latter case, cachexia is directly responsible for the death of about 22% of patients diagnosed with cancer.

Symptoms of Cachexia

Some clinical symptoms are similar for cachexia caused by different diseases:

  • Involuntary weight loss;
  • Anorexia, changes in taste, vomiting, early satiety, intestinal malabsorption;
  • Astenia (organic weakness), fatigue, loss of motor and physical skills, apathy;
  • Loss of immuno-competence;
  • Metabolic chaos;
  • Ionic imbalance;
  • Alteration in the plasma hormonal profile;
  • Hypothalamic dysfunction.

In the case of cancer-associated cachexia, the disease may have 3 stages in the patient, with different symptoms in each one.



Refractory Cachexia

Weight loss <5%

Weight loss> 5% or BMI <20 and weight loss> 2% OR sarcopenia and weight loss> 2%


Anorexia and metabolic changes

Reduced food intake / systemic inflammation

Non-responsive to anticancer treatment

Low performance score

Life expectancy <3 months

How the diagnosis is made

The diagnosis of cachexia is made clinically, where the patient describes the symptoms he has been having – normally, weight loss and appetite are the first symptoms noticed by 54% to 70% of patients. When this syndrome is diagnosed early, some strategies are allowed to be taken to minimize the disease, such as the use of medications and physical therapy.

In most cases, cachexia is diagnosed by a nutritionist or a geriatrician, when he is following the treatment of an elderly person who has cancer.

What is the treatment and prevention for cachexia

As much as the diet with many calories is inefficient to replace the loss of muscle mass of the patient, it is important to prevent the body from losing even more nutrients. In addition, several medications can be used when treating the disease, such as those listed below:

  • Growth hormone ;
  • Steroids;
  • Antioxidants ;
  • Omega 3;
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs ;
  • Supplements of vitamins and minerals .

Regarding prevention, no method of preventing cachexia has yet been proven. However, exercise in patients diagnosed with cancer is being explored as a preventive form of cachexia.


NEVER self-medicate or stop using a medication without first consulting a doctor. Only he will be able to tell which medication, dosage and duration of treatment is the most suitable for his specific case. The information contained on this site is only intended to inform, not in any way intended to replace the guidance of a specialist or serve as a recommendation for any type of treatment. Always follow the instructions on the package insert and, if symptoms persist, seek medical or pharmaceutical advice.

Every disease is serious and cachexia is no different. So if you have any of the diseases listed under “causes”, see a doctor. The sooner the disease is diagnosed, the better for the patient