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Memory Leak in C

Last Updated on January 9, 2024 by Ankit Kochar

Memory leaks in C can be a significant challenge, posing a threat to program stability and performance. A memory leak occurs when a program fails to release memory that it has allocated dynamically, leading to a gradual depletion of available memory. This issue can result in degraded system performance and, in extreme cases, program crashes. This introduction explores the concept of memory leaks in C, their causes, and the importance of effective memory management.

What is Memory Leak in C?

A memory leak in C refers to a situation where a computer program allocates memory dynamically (using functions like malloc() or calloc()) but fails to release or deallocate that memory properly before the program terminates. As a result, the memory remains occupied even though it is no longer needed, leading to a gradual accumulation of unreleased memory.

Memory leaks can have adverse effects on the performance and reliability of a C program. When a program repeatedly allocates memory without freeing it, it can eventually consume a significant amount of system memory, potentially causing the program to slow down, become unresponsive, or even crash due to insufficient memory resources.

Causes of Memory Leak in C

Memory Leak in C can be caused in various ways. Some of the probable causes are listed below.

  • One common cause of Memory Leak in C is due to Overwriting Pointer Variables. This means assigning a pointer variable with a different address value before de-allocating the already pointed memory block.
  • Memory Leak in C can also be caused if a pointer variable goes out of the scope.
  • Error during the deallocation process also results in the Memory Leak in C.
  • If we do not deallocate the memory before the program execution finishes, this also causes Memory Leak in C.

Examples of Memory Leak in C

Here are examples showing the Memory Leak in C.

Example 1 of Memory Leak in C
The following example demonstrates how memory leak in C programming due to overwriting of pointer variables.


#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

int main() {
    int ptr = (int)malloc(sizeof(int));
    ptr = (int*)malloc(sizeof(int));

return 0;

In the above example, a pointer variable ‘ptr’ is declared and assigned the address of a dynamically allocated integer using the malloc() function. However, the program allocates memory for ‘ptr’ again without first freeing the previously allocated memory, resulting in a memory leak.

Example 2 of Memory Leak in C
This example demonstrates the Memory Leak in C caused when the pointer variables become out of scope.



int main()
    int a = 12, b = 24; 
        int *sum = (int*)malloc(sizeof(int));
        *sum = a + b;
    printf("%d\n", *sum);
    return 0;


error: ‘sum’ undeclared (first use in this function)
     printf("%d\n", *sum);

In the above program C program, we have allocated a memory block to the sum pointer variables in the inner block of the code inside of the main() function. We allocated an integer memory block to the sum pointer variable in a local scope (inner block of code) inside the main() function in the prior C program. We used the sum pointer to assign the addition of a and b to the allocated memory block, but when the block scope ends, the sum pointer is destroyed and the memory block remains allocated. This will result in a memory leak in C.

How to Avoid Memory Leak in C

Here are some of the ways to avoid Memory Leak in C.

  • free() Function with every malloc() and calloc() Function:
    After each malloc (calloc) function, include a free function. Assume we need to create an array of characters to store some data in an application. Since we already know that the memory management functions (such as (malloc or calloc) will be used to construct a dynamic array in C. It is recommended to write the free function right after the malloc or calloc. It prevents the programmer from missing writing the free function. Here is a code snippet for the above scenario.

    void prep_func(int n)
      char *array = malloc (n *sizeof(char));
      // code to execute
  • Avoid the usage of Original Pointer:
    Working with a temporary pointer is always recommended because the original pointer contains the address of the allocated memory(which might get accidentally changed). So in this case, if we use a temporary pointer, it helps us in preserving the value of the original pointer. This helps in avoiding the Memory Leak in C as it restricts the problem overwriting of Pointer Variables.

    int *ptr = (int*)malloc(sizeof(int));
    // temporary pointer variable
    int *temp = ptr;

In conclusion, mitigating memory leaks is crucial for maintaining the reliability and efficiency of C programs. Developers need to be vigilant in dynamically allocating and deallocating memory, ensuring that every allocated block is properly released. Utilizing tools like memory debuggers and adopting best practices in memory management can significantly reduce the risk of memory leaks and contribute to robust and stable C programs.

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQs) Related to Memory Leak in C

Here are some Frequently Asked Questions related to “Memory Leak in C”.

Q1: Why is a memory leak dangerous?
A1: Memory Leak in C is dangerous because it can cause the program to consume much amount of memory over time which may result in instability of the system or may lead to a system crash.

Q2: What are the common causes of memory leaks in C?
Memory leaks in C are often caused by forgetting to free dynamically allocated memory using functions like malloc() or calloc(). Other causes include losing the only reference to allocated memory, using incorrect deallocation functions, or not deallocating memory in error paths.

Q3: How can one detect memory leaks in a C program?
Memory leaks can be detected using tools like Valgrind, which analyzes memory usage and identifies memory leaks during program execution. Additionally, static code analysis tools and compiler flags can help identify potential memory-related issues before runtime.

Q4: What are the consequences of memory leaks in C programs?
Memory leaks can lead to inefficient memory usage, causing programs to consume more memory than necessary. This can result in performance degradation, increased system resource utilization, and, in extreme cases, program crashes or unexpected terminations.

Q5: How can memory leaks be prevented in C programming?
To prevent memory leaks in C, developers should adopt best practices, such as always freeing dynamically allocated memory using free(), using automatic variables when possible, and validating memory allocation operations. Regularly testing and using tools for memory analysis can help catch potential leaks early in the development process.

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