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.
Some of the causes of malabsorption include:
- AIDS and HIV
- Biliary atresia
- Celiac disease
- Certain medications (cholestyramine, tetracycline, some antacids, some medications used to treat obesity, colchicine, acarbose, phenytoin)
- Certain types of cancer (lymphoma, pancreatic cancer, gastrinomas)
- Certain types of surgery (gastrectomy with gastrojejunostomy, surgical treatments for obesity, partial or complete removal of the ileum)
- Chronic liver disease
- Cow's milk protein intolerance
- Crohn's disease
- Damage from radiation treatments
- Parasite infection, including Giardia lamblia
- Soy milk protein intolerance
- Whipple's disease
Vitamin B12 malabsorption may be due to:
- Bloating, cramping, and gas
- Bulky stools
- Chronic diarrhea (may not occur with vitamin malabsorption)
- Failure to thrive
- Fatty stools (steatorrhea)
- Muscle wasting
- Weight loss
Malabsorption can affect growth and development. It also can lead to some illnesses.
Exams and Tests
Your doctor or nurse will do an exam. Tests that may be done include:
- Blood and urine tests
- CT scan of the abdomen
- Hydrogen breath test
- Schilling test for vitamin B12 deficiency
- Secretin stimulation test
- Small bowel biopsy
- Stool culture or culture of small intestine aspirate
- Stool fat testing (See: Quantitative stool fat test)
- X-rays of the small bowel or other imaging tests
You may need to take extra vitamins and nutrients.
The outlook depends on what is causing the malabsorption.
Long-term malabsorption can result in:
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of malabsorption.
Prevention depends on the condition causing malabsorption.
Semrad CE. Approach to the patient with diarrhea and malabsorption. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 142.
Hogenauer C, Hammer HF. Maldigestion and malabsorption. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 101.
Reviewed By: Jenifer K. Lehrer, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Frankford-Torresdale Hospital, Aria Health System, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.