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Why do malnourished children have bloated stomachs?

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Abdominal distension, or bloated stomach, in malnourished infants is a common finding of kwashiorkor, a type of malnutrition that is caused by a diet poor in protein, according to MedlinePlus. Abdominal distension occurs because of weakened abdominal muscles, liver enlargement and intestinal distension, according to The Merck Manual.

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Other important physical signs of kwashiorkor include a failure to thrive, bilateral pitting edema, hypothermia, hair discoloration, dermatitis and xeropthalmia, according to The Merck Manual. Kwashiorkor most commonly occurs in countries that experience famine, have a poor supply of food or poor nutrition education. It is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa and is also common in Central America and Southeast Asia, according to the Medical Association of Malawi.

The treatment of kwashiorkor depends on the severity of the malnutrition. In cases of mild to moderate malnutrition, treatment can begin with a liquid-oral, lactose free diet. Solid food is typically not well tolerated in the beginning, and bacterial migration in the digestive tract causes infectious diarrhea and intolerance to food containing milk products, according to The Merck Manual.

Severe and prolonged malnutrition requires a hospitalized approach to treatment. This includes the correction of any electrolyte abnormalities, treatment of infections, as well as infection prophylaxis, micronutrient replacement, and, in worst-case scenarios, tube feeding, according to The Merck Manual.

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