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Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency In Childhood

Essential fatty acids must be consumed in the diet. They include linoleic , linolenic , arachidonic , eicosapentaenoic , and docosahexaenoic acids . In the body, arachidonic acid can be made from linoleic acid, and eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids can be made from linolenic acid. Vegetable oils, such as corn oil, cottonseed oil, and soybean oil, are sources of linoleic and linolenic acids; fish oils are sources of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids.
Essential fatty acids are needed for many physiologic processes, including maintaining the integrity of the skin and the structure of cell membranes and synthesizing important biologically active compounds, such as prostaglandins and leukotrienes. Some animal studies suggest that essential fatty acids may be necessary for the development of normal vision in infants.

Linoleic acid deficiency may occur in infants whose formula is deficient in polyunsaturated fatty acids. Symptoms of this deficiency include dry, scaly skin followed by peeling. A puslike fluid may seep from areas around the skinfolds, especially around the anus. An essential fatty acid deficiency also causes significant changes in metabolism, affecting the lipid (fat) content of blood, platelet function, inflammatory responses, and certain immune responses. Similar symptoms may occur in patients who receive all nutrients intravenously for an extended time (long-term total parenteral nutrition) but who are not given essential fatty acids. When long-term total parenteral nutrition doesn't include linolenic acid, neurologic complications including numbness, weakness, an inability to walk, leg pain, and blurred vision may occur along with very low blood levels of linolenic acid. Symptoms resolve when linolenic acid is given.

From The Merck Manual of Medical Information Home Edition , edited by Mark H. Beers and Robert Berkow. Copyright 1997 by Merck & Co., Inc., Whitehouse Station, NJ:

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