What Is Pellagra?

Pellagra is a rare nutritional disorder caused by a deficiency of niacin, or vitamin B3, in the diet. It is characterized by a combination of three symptoms known as the 3 D's: dermatitis (skin problems), diarrhea, and dementia. Pellagra can also cause headaches, fatigue, anemia, insomnia, and depression. The disorder typically develops slowly over time, and it is easily preventable and treatable if it is detected early on.

Pellagra is most common in regions with low access to a variety of healthy foods, including people who are living in poverty or have poor access to nutritious food, as well as those who follow a strictly vegetarian or vegan diet. It's also more common in regions of the world where maize (corn) is a staple food, as it is low in niacin.

Niacin is found in a variety of foods, including meats, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts, milk, and avocados. It is also available as a supplement and is sometimes used to treat pellagra.

Symptoms of Pellagra

  • Skin irritation and rashes often found on areas exposed to sunlight (such as the face, neck, hands, and feet)
  • Diarrhea
  • Dementia and mental confusion
  • Fatigue and malaise
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Anemia
  • Depression and anxiety

Diagnosis and Treatment

Pellagra can be diagnosed with a simple blood test. If it is diagnosed early on, the condition can usually be managed with a niacin supplement and changes to the diet. Treatment options may include medication to treat associated symptoms, such as diarrhea and skin irritation.

In some cases, a person may need to be hospitalized for severe pellagra, or for those who cannot take an oral niacin supplement. In these cases, the medication may be administered intravenously or intramuscularly.