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What are the Symptoms of Starvation?

Jessica Ellis
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Starvation is a condition caused by the sudden or gradual lack of food. Symptoms of starvation can occur shortly after food is first denied, but may progress at different rates depending on how quickly the victim is removed from all sources of nutrition. Some symptoms of starvation are visible, while others are internal. Starvation can occur both voluntarily, as in extreme weight-loss diets, or involuntarily, such as through abuse or a simple unavailability of food.

Often, the first symptoms of starvation are digestive in nature. A person or animal suddenly denied food will feel extremely ravenous for several days, but then slowly be able to ignore the feeling to some degree. Pain in the stomach often quickly develops, then can turn into digestive and waste-related syndromes such as severe and painful constipation followed by uncontrollable diarrhea. Early symptoms of starvation include faintness, weakness, and dizziness. Thirst may also rapidly increase.

Symptoms of starvation tend to become more visible of time. Fat cells in the face and around the eyes tend to dissipate rapidly, giving the victim a sunken or hollowed appearance. Coordination may decrease, and simple tasks may become difficult. The body slowly becomes emaciated, though the feet and hands may swell with retained water, causing edemas. A starving person or animal may feel increased sensations of cold, as body temperature begins to drop rapidly with prolonged starvation.

Internally, symptoms of starvation begin wreaking havoc on the bodily systems. Blood level drops, and severe anemia or iron-deficiency begins to occur. The body works to protect its most vital organs by devouring fat and muscle stores to help support heart and brain function. Mental function decreases throughout the process as the brain is continually deprived of necessary nutrients.

As the condition progresses toward fatality, mental symptoms become more extreme. Many victims fall into a chronic listlessness, unable to move even for basic bodily needs. Some begin to have vivid hallucinations and suffer confusion, vertigo, and vivid dreams. Some ritual starvation is undertaken to achieve these visions, but the starving person must quickly return to care and food quickly to avoid death.

Victims who die of starvation-related causes usually do so by going into cardiac arrest. When the heart can no longer support itself on the body's resources, it has no choice but to cease functioning. Some victims fall into a coma for several days before this occurs.

Starvation is a prolonged and brutal death, marked with extreme discomfort and loss of functions throughout. Even those who undertake the process voluntarily, so as to lose weight or as part of a political statement, may suffer permanent organ damage or harm to the metabolism. If a person or animal appears to be suffering enforced starvation due to abuse or lack of resources, it is important to alert welfare authorities as quickly as possible. Those in advanced stages of the condition cannot simply return to normal eating, but must be guided back toward health by medical professionals.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for The Health Board. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon990853 — On May 12, 2015

Thank you! I woke up with diarrhea and it completely curbed my appetite. I didn't eat for over 24 hours, and thought I was sick due to stomach pain and faintness, not to mention I lost three pounds. Then I ate after reading this, and felt better after about 30 minutes. Thank you!

By anon968235 — On Sep 02, 2014

"I think that the causes of eating disorders begin with the preoccupation to be perfect. "

Brickback, that often isn't true. There is many different reasons why people develop eating issues or even anorexia. The reason behind it isn't always about body image. You will find out if you talk to various anorexics.

I developed an eating issue: binge eating followed by starving myself. This eating disorder started off as I was eating as a comfort food thing and then felt bad for binging so then starving myself would occur.

Later on, I realized that starving myself made me feel like I had some control in my life (when so much of my life was out of control). I've heard some anorexics say the same thing: they don't eat as it makes them feel in control of their lives.

After a time of using not eating as a way to feel like I had something I could control in life, with the not eating itself, it ended up mentally shifting me to the point I then couldn't see my body or how family members were telling me I looked shocking but I couldn't see that myself and thought I looked great.

As for me, my eating disorders were never about body image.

By anon336334 — On May 28, 2013

A dog named Bruiser was found starved and later euthanized by a vet. The vet must've thought he couldn't save the dog, although it was alive when found. They mentioned in the article that the body temperature couldn't be read. Is this the sign that it is too late?

It's been bothering me that just maybe, they should have tried harder to save this dog when in another famous dog starvation case, Patrick, the dog. Patrick was successfully nursed back to a healthy dog. They gave him a round the clock care, even giving him blood transfusion. How was it that Patrick was saved but not Bruiser? What do vets see?

By anon332718 — On May 01, 2013

I have recently discovered I have Celiac Disease. I have probably had it since birth but was officially diagnosed 10 years ago. My doctor did not inform me she was screening for this amongst the possibilities I was aware of and when the test came back positive, it was a borderline positive so she never told me.

In the last 10 years, I have seen so many doctors with regards to my stomach, bowel and general ill health issues with no results. Since finally being diagnosed for a second time with Celiac disease and at a much higher level confirming a definite positive, I changed my diet to gluten free and in just two weeks feel much better.

However, my intestines are so badly damaged that for at least the last eight months, my body has not been getting enough nutrients from foods I ate. My pancreas, spleen and liver suffered damage. I had no symptoms of starvation because my whole life I've been thin -- that ism until my left side developed a bulge the size of a tennis ball, and two months after that it was the size of a melon. I was in extreme pain. I became so fatigued that I fell asleep driving several times between home and work (a five minute drive).

I have major muscle loss and blood vessels breaking from lifting objects that were never an issue before but are much too heavy for me now. I get extreme dizziness, dehydration and confusion. These things happened so very fast but they were not visible to those around me, so no one suspected I was malnourished to suggest I get checked. And I had no idea since I wasn't dieting, or aware of an illness as I am now, to suggest that I even consider it.

I talk about this because I don't think very many people like myself are aware of just how dangerous a gluten allergy is or can be if you don't follow a proper gluten- free regime, and it should be more broadly discussed. People should be informed about the effects of gluten on the intestines and how quickly starvation can begin. Everyone talks about the cancer it causes and possible death, but not one person I have talked to who has or have heard of it mentioned in connection with malnourishment or starvation.

The specialist I see told me because it's happening to me, so I researched it extensively and it is not mentioned as strongly as it should be in any resource I found. I know several people with Celiac disease who are not concerned with eating something containing gluten here and there and it's because they are not well informed.

Since sharing my experience and better informing them, they now take their gluten allergy more seriously and I'm sure are now less likely to give in to that doughnut or cookie than they were before. Thanks for listening. Hope this helps others out there.

By anon331227 — On Apr 21, 2013

What does it feel like to be starving?

By anon326713 — On Mar 23, 2013

@kristee: I work at a rehoming shelter for dogs and have see a fair few sights of dogs which had suffered neglect and I know that rescues like our do our best to save every dog which we can. Unfortunately, the dog will most probably have to be reported to the dog warden and will be sent to the pound. Here they keep them for seven days and if no one claims them within that time or no rescue center reserves them they will be put to sleep.

Don't feed the dog too much at one time because it may make it sick as it isn't used to that much food at any one time. Hope the little thing is okay.

By wavy58 — On Jan 28, 2013

I see starving kids on TV in those commercials asking for the public's support. Their arms and legs are always skeleton-like, but their bellies are really bloated.

What makes their stomachs look this way? I know it must not be starvation alone, since anorexic people don't walk around with bloated bellies.

By giddion — On Jan 27, 2013

@Kristee – The best thing for you to do is to nurse him back to health before you try taking him to a shelter or finding him a home. Shelters are often overcrowded, so they won't spend their resources on an animal in bad shape.

Take him to a vet, because he's probably going to have worms and he will need iron supplements. I found a starving puppy once, and he was anemic and had worms, but the vet gave me medicine for both of these things.

Also, because of his starvation, his joints were crooked. He had to take calcium supplements for a month so that they would grow in straight.

Needless to say, after you do all this, you are probably going to be attached to the dog and you won't even consider getting rid of him. I hope you decide to keep him, because a starving dog really needs love and nourishment that only a caring owner can give.

By Kristee — On Jan 26, 2013

A dog came up to my house yesterday, and I can see his ribs and hip bones. He was starving, so I fed him some canned chicken that I had in the cupboard.

I don't have any pets, so I don't have any dogfood. I really don't want a dog, but I don't know what to do with this one. If I take him to an animal shelter, will they put him down on the spot, or will they nurse him back to health?

By healthy4life — On Jan 25, 2013

Anorexics who are literally undergoing starvation often have to have inpatient eating disorder treatment. They have an electrolyte imbalance, and their heart rates may be affected, too. These are dangerous things that need to be managed with close supervision.

Also, anorexics can't simply start eating again. They need therapy, and they need to be watched so that they don't hide the food or spit it out when no one is there.

By suntan12 — On Mar 10, 2011

Oasis - I think that going to a support group like Weight Watchers is also helpful because you see likeminded people that talk about their successes and struggles with compulsive eating.

They also keep their members accountable my having them weigh in weekly. Even lifetime members that have met their goal have to be weighed in.

By oasis11 — On Mar 07, 2011

BrickBack - I agree that it is sad when girls feel this way. I also wanted to say that many people suffer from compulsive eating and often seek compulsive eating disorder treatment in order to help them with their attitudes about food.

Often people with compulsive eating problems tend to eat out either for entertainment reasons or to fill a desperate need. Sometimes these people eat because of stress and anxiety or other times it is a result of sadness and loneliness.

The food acts a quick pick me up but afterward the person general feels guilty which leads to more feelings of worthlessness. This causes a cycle of overeating that will not be corrected until the person addresses the source of their problem.

Once they identify why they are choosing food when they feel a certain way a cognitive behavioral psychologist should be able to address this issues and offer alternatives to the behavior. They will often have the patient keep a journal in order for the patient to see the connection between his feelings and his behavior. The therapist might also suggest an activity that will not allow the patient to eat when they feel the urge.

The therapist might tell the patient to exercise or taking up a hobby like painting which requires enormous concentration so that they can think about something other than food.

By BrickBack — On Mar 06, 2011

Crispety - I think that the causes of eating disorders begin with the preoccupation to be perfect.

Young girls see women in magazines and then idolize these pictures and make them the ideal female form. What they don’t realize is that these women have been touched up through an editorial process and really do not look like that and of the models that are very thin, most are not healthy.

I also think that the parents habits and the way they feel about their own weight is also important. If a mother is constantly dieting and is not overweight, this can send a signal to her daughter that she might also need to lose a few pounds as well.

Young girls especially in their teens are very impressionable and many think that if they had the idealized body that they desired their life would be better in all aspects which really are not true.

By Crispety — On Mar 05, 2011

I know that sometimes people develop eat disorders which use starvation methods in order to obtain an idealized weight.

The problem is that the person that is suffering from these eating disorder symptoms does have a distorted view of themselves and will likely never see themselves in an accurate way unless they seek professional help.

It is because of these distortions that seemingly thin women determine that they are overweight and most resort to dieting and extreme exercising in order to lose weight.

Some people develop binge eating disorders in which they vomit after they eat. Bulimics tend to have guilt associated with the food but they desire it so much that they indulge and then purge.

This disorder can also tear the lining of the throat, cause permanent heart damage, tooth decay, and even death.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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