Severe acute malnutrition (SAM) arises as a consequence of a sudden period of food shortage and is associated with loss of a person's body fat and wasting of their skeletal muscle. Many of those affected are already undernourished and are often susceptible to disease. Infants and young children are the most vulnerable as they require extra nutrition for growth and development, have comparatively limited energy reserves and depend on others. Undernutrition can have drastic and wide-ranging consequences for the child's development and survival in the short and long term. Despite efforts made to treat SAM through different interventions and programmes, it continues to cause unacceptably high levels of mortality and morbidity. Uncertainty remains as to the most effective methods to treat severe acute malnutrition in young children. To evaluate the effectiveness of interventions to treat infants and children aged < 5 years who have SAM. Eight databases (MEDLINE, EMBASE, MEDLINE In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations, CAB Abstracts Ovid, Bioline, Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, EconLit EBSCO and The Cochrane Library) were searched to 2010. Bibliographies of included articles and grey literature sources were also searched. The project expert advisory group was asked to identify additional published and unpublished references. Prior to the systematic review, a Delphi process involving international experts prioritised the research questions. Searches were conducted and two reviewers independently screened titles and abstracts for eligibility. Inclusion criteria were applied to the full texts of retrieved papers by one reviewer and checked independently by a second. Included studies were mapped to the research questions. Data extraction and quality assessment were undertaken by one reviewer and checked by a second reviewer. Differences in opinion were resolved through discussion at each stage. Studies were synthesised through a narrative review with tabulation of the results. A total of 8954 records were screened, 224 full-text articles were retrieved, and 74 articles (describing 68 studies) met the inclusion criteria and were mapped. No evidence focused on treatment of children with SAM who were human immunodeficiency virus sero-positive, and no good-quality or adequately reported studies assessed treatments for SAM among infants < 6 months old. One randomised controlled trial investigated fluid resuscitation solutions for shock, with none adequately treating shock. Children with acute diarrhoea benefited from the use of hypo-osmolar oral rehydration solution (H-ORS) compared with the standard World Health Organization-oral rehydration solution (WHO-ORS). WHO-ORS was not significantly different from rehydration solution for malnutrition (ReSoMal), but the safety of ReSoMal was uncertain. A rice-based ORS was more beneficial than glucose-based ORSs, and provision of zinc plus a WHO-ORS had a favourable impact on diarrhoea and need for ORS. Comparisons of different diets in children with persistent diarrhoea produced conflicting findings. For treating infection, comparison of amoxicillin with ceftriaxone during inpatient therapy, and routine provision of antibiotics for 7 days versus no antibiotics during outpatient therapy of uncomplicated SAM, found that neither had a significant effect on recovery at the end of follow-up. No evidence mapped to the next three questions on factors that affect sustainability of programmes, long-term survival and readmission rates, the clinical effectiveness of management strategies for treating children with comorbidities such as tuberculosis and Helicobacter pylori infection and the factors that limit the full implementation of treatment programmes. Comparison of treatment for SAM in different settings showed that children receiving inpatient care appear to do as well as those in ambulatory or home settings on anthropometric measures and response time to treatment. Longer-term follow-up showed limited differences between the different settings. The majority of evidence on methods for correcting micronutrient deficiencies considered zinc supplements; however, trials were heterogeneous and a firm conclusion about zinc was not reached. There was limited evidence on either supplementary potassium or nicotinic acid (each produced some benefits), and nucleotides (not associated with benefits). Evidence was identified for four of the five remaining questions, but not assessed because of resource limitation. The systematic review focused on key questions prioritised through a Delphi study and, as a consequence, did not encompass all elements in the management of SAM. In focusing on evidence from controlled studies with the most rigorous designs that were published in the English language, the systematic review may have excluded other forms of evidence. The systematic review identified several limitations in the evidence base for assessing the effectiveness of interventions for treating young children with severe acute malnutrition, including a lack of studies assessing the different interventions; limited details of study methods used; short follow-up post intervention or discharge; and heterogeneity in participants, interventions, settings, and outcome measures affecting generalisability. For many of the most highly ranked questions evidence was lacking or inconclusive. More research is needed on a range of topic areas concerning the treatment of infants and children with SAM. Further research is required on most aspects of the management of SAM in children < 5 years, including intravenous resuscitation regimens for shock, management of subgroups (e.g. infants < 6 months old, infants and children with SAM who are human immunodeficiency virus sero-positive) and on the use of antibiotics.