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    Malabsorption is difficulty absorbing nutrients from food.


    Many diseases can cause malabsorption. Malabsorption is usually the inability to absorb certain sugars, fats, proteins, or vitamins from food. It can also involve a general malabsorption of 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)
    • Cholestasis
    • 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:

    • Pernicious anemia
    • Bowel resection
    • Tapeworm infection (Diphyllobothrium latum)


    • 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, or it can lead to specific illnesses.

    Exams and Tests

    • 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


    Vitamin and nutrient replacement is often necessary.

    Outlook (Prognosis)

    The outlook depends on the condition causing malabsorption.

    Possible Complications

    Long-term malabsorption can result in:

    • Anemia
    • Gallstones
    • Kidney stones
    • Osteoporosis and bone disease
    • Malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies

    When to Contact a Medical Professional

    Call your health care provider if you notice symptoms of malabsorption.


    Preventive methods depend on the condition causing malabsorption.


    Semrad CE. Approach to the patient with diarrhea and malabsorption. In Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. 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.


    • Digestive system


    • Cystic fibrosis


    • Digestive system organs


      • Digestive system


      • Cystic fibrosis


      • Digestive system organs


      A Closer Look

        Tests for Malabsorption

          Review Date: 8/10/2012

          Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

          The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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          St. Luke's Hospital - 232 South Woods Mill Road - Chesterfield, MO 63017 Main Number: 314-434-1500 Emergency Dept: 314-205-6990 Patient Billing: 888-924-9200
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