"boo-LEE-mee-uh") is a type of
eating disorder. People with bulimia will eat a large
amount of food in a short time (binge). Then they will do something to get rid
of the food (purge). They may vomit, exercise too much, or use medicines like
People who have bulimia may binge because food gives
them a feeling of comfort. But eating too much makes them feel out of control.
After they binge, they feel ashamed, guilty, and afraid of gaining weight. This
causes them to purge.
Without treatment, this "binge and purge"
cycle can lead to serious, long-term health problems. Acid in the mouth from
vomiting can cause tooth decay, gum disease, and loss of
tooth enamel. Any type of purging can lead to bone
thinning (osteoporosis), kidney damage, heart problems, or even
If you or someone you know has bulimia or another eating
disorder, get help. Eating disorders can be dangerous. And willpower alone is
not enough to overcome them. Treatment can help a person who has an eating
disorder feel better and be healthier.
What causes bulimia?
All eating disorders are
complex problems, and experts do not really know what causes them. But they may
be caused by a mix of family history, social factors, and personality traits.
You may be more likely to have bulimia if:
Other people in your family are obese or have
an eating disorder.
You have a job or do a sport
that stresses body size, such as ballet, modeling, or gymnastics.
You are the type of person who tries to be perfect all the time, never feels
good enough, or worries a lot.
You are dealing with stressful
life events, such as divorce, moving to a new town or school, or losing a loved
Bulimia is most common in:
Teens. Like other eating disorders, bulimia
usually starts in the teen years. But it can start even earlier or in
Women. But boys and men have it too.
While bulimia often starts in the teen years, it usually
lasts into adulthood and is a long-term disorder.
What are the symptoms?
People with bulimia:
Binge on a regular basis. They eat large amounts of food in a
short period of time, often over a couple of hours or less. During a binge,
they feel out of control and feel unable to stop eating.
get rid of the food and avoid weight gain. They may make themselves vomit,
exercise very hard or for a long time, or misuse laxatives,
enemas, water pills (diuretics), or
Base how they feel about themselves on how much they weigh and
how they look.
Any one of these can be a sign of an eating disorder that
How can you know if someone has bulimia?
anorexia nervosa, another eating disorder. People who
have anorexia eat so little that they become extremely thin. People who have
bulimia may not be thin. They may be a normal size. They may binge in secret
and deny that they are purging. This makes it hard for others to know that a
person with bulimia has a serious problem.
If you are concerned
about someone, look for the following signs. A person may have bulimia if
Goes to the bathroom right after
secretive about eating, hides food, or will not eat around other
Exercises a lot, even when she does not feel
Often talks about dieting, weight, and body
Uses laxatives or diuretics often.
marks or calluses on the back of her hands or swollen cheeks or jaws. These are
caused by making herself vomit.
How is it treated?
Bulimia can be treated with
psychological counseling and sometimes medicines, such as antidepressants. The
sooner treatment is started, the better. Getting treatment early can make
recovery easier and prevent serious health problems.
with a counselor, a person with bulimia can learn to feel better about herself.
She can learn to eat normally again and stop purging.
mental health problems such as depression often happen with bulimia. If a
person has another condition along with bulimia, more treatment may be needed,
and it may take longer to get better.
Eating disorders can take a
long time to overcome. And it is common to fall back into unhealthy ways of
eating. If you are having problems, don't try to handle them on your own. Get
What should you do if you think someone has bulimia?
It can be very scary to realize that someone you care about has an eating
disorder. If you think a friend or loved one has bulimia, you can help.
Talk to her. Tell her why you are worried.
Urge her to talk to someone who can help, like a doctor or
counselor. Offer to go with her.
Tell someone who can make a
difference, like a parent, teacher, counselor, or doctor. The sooner your friend
or loved one gets help, the sooner she will be healthy again.
The cause of
bulimia is not clear, but it probably results from a
combination of family history,
social values (such as admiring thinness), and certain
personality traits (such as perfectionism).
Your risk for developing bulimia increases if your parent, sister, or
brother has the condition. But family history may be only part of the cause.
Stressful life events such as moving, divorce, or the death of a loved
one can trigger bulimia in some people.
Many young women, such as
those in college or high school, have unhealthy attitudes toward eating and
toward their bodies. Socially, they may accept and encourage destructive behaviors
like extreme dieting or binging and purging. These beliefs and behaviors are
not normal or healthy. They can play a part in developing eating disorders that
need treatment. Women who begin to severely restrict their diets in order to
lose weight are at risk for bulimia.
Bulimia, like all
eating disorders, is a complex physical and psychological condition. Recovery
requires treatment that helps you change your behavior and also deals with the
deeper attitudes and feelings that cause you to binge and purge.
Repeatedly eating large amounts of food in a
short period of time (less than 2 hours).
Frequently getting rid
of the calories you've eaten (purging) by making yourself vomit, fasting,
exercising too much, or misusing
ipecac syrup, or
enemas. Misuse of these medicines can lead to serious
health problems and even death.
Feeling a loss of control over how
much you eat.
Having binge-purge cycles.
ashamed of overeating and very fearful of gaining weight.
your self-esteem and value upon your body shape and weight.
Any of the above symptoms can be a sign of bulimia or
eating disorder that needs treatment. If you or
someone you know has any of these symptoms, talk to a doctor,
friend, or family member about your concerns right away.
and other eating disorders can be hard to diagnose, because people often
keep unhealthy thoughts and behaviors secret and may deny that they have a
problem. Often a person won't get evaluation and treatment until someone else
notices the signs of bulimia and encourages the person to seek the help that he
or she needs.
Other signs that a person may have bulimia
Common signs that a person may have bulimia are
when the person:
Is very secretive about eating and does not eat
around other people.
Sneaks food or hides food in the house. You
may notice that large amounts of food are missing.
weight changes. For example, the person may gain and lose large amounts of
weight in short periods of time.
Teeth marks on the backs of
the hands or calluses on the knuckles from self-induced vomiting.
anxious, or guilty.
Shoplifts food, laxatives, or
Drinks large amounts of alcohol
or uses illegal drugs and may have a
substance abuse problem.
Conditions that commonly occur with bulimia, such as
substance abuse, or
anxiety disorders, can make treatment of bulimia harder. Recovery from bulimia can take a long time. And
relapse is common. If the person feels extremely
discouraged, be sure to tell the doctor immediately so that the person can get
In some cases, people who have an eating disorder
If you or someone you know shows warning signs of suicide,
seek help immediately.
Bulimia is different from
anorexia. People with anorexia weigh 85% or less of
their normal body weight. But most people with bulimia are in their normal
weight range. Some people who have anorexia make themselves vomit, but this is
eating disorder. For more information, see the topic
Bulimia can develop after a person has followed a very
restrictive diet. Binging may also be triggered by a stressful event, when food
gives you a sense of comfort. Feeling guilty and ashamed of binging can cause
you to purge to avoid weight gain. This starts the cycle of binging and purging
that becomes a habit.
As bulimia develops, you may not eat at the
beginning of the day. But later you may binge to comfort yourself, especially
at the end of a stressful day.
Vomiting causes the body to release
endorphins, which are natural chemicals that make you feel good.
Eventually you may make yourself vomit even if you have not overeaten so that
you can feel good. Soon you lose control over the binge-purge cycle. Repeated
vomiting, fasting, exercising too much, or misusing
ipecac syrup, or
enemas will eventually cause serious, long-term health
After bulimia becomes a pattern, it is very hard
to return to normal eating without help. Unhealthy eating behaviors can
continue for many years before a person seeks treatment.
treated, bulimia can lead to serious, long-term health problems. It is common
for people to hide the condition from others for years. By the time others
discover the disorder, many people with bulimia already have serious problems.
These range from mild to severe, depending on the type of purging behaviors and
how long they have continued. Health problems caused
by bulimia include:
Tooth decay, toothaches, swollen gums,
gum disease (gingivitis), and erosion of
tooth enamel. These are caused by acid in the mouth
loss of consciousness, usually because of low blood pressure.
Suicide risk when feeling discouraged
about having bulimia or a relapse or about ongoing body image issues.
Long-term problems with bowel movements because of laxative
Overuse of medicine (such as
ipecac syrup) to cause vomiting can lead to diarrhea,
weakness, low blood pressure, chest pain, and trouble breathing. A person
can die from prolonged overuse of these medicines.
health problems often occur along with
bulimia, which may make treatment take longer or make
bulimia harder to treat.1 These conditions
which commonly occurs with
eating disorders and increases related feelings of
guilt, anxiety, and obsession.
Although bulimia is a long-term disorder linked to serious
health problems, it can be successfully treated. Most people who seek
treatment for bulimia get better. About half of people with bulimia
recover completely with treatment. 2
Although treatment is usually successful, bulimia is a long-term disorder, and
setbacks can occur. A return of symptoms (relapse) might happen. But with ongoing treatment
and patience, most people can eventually overcome bulimia.
among teens with type 1 diabetes is becoming more common. These teens often
lose weight before their diabetes is discovered, then quickly gain weight when
treatment begins. Some learn that they can lose weight by skipping insulin
doses. This causes poor control of their diabetes and can result in serious
problems that can lead to blindness or kidney failure.
What Increases Your Risk
The risk of developing
bulimia or another eating disorder is greatest if a
Has a biological parent, brother, or sister who
eating disorder or who is overweight or
Call your doctor immediately if you or someone you care about has been
bulimia and now:
Is not able to pass urine.
that his or her heart skips beats or beats slower than normal.
severe belly pain, is vomiting up blood, or has black, sticky stools that
look like tar. These signs may mean that there is bleeding in the
Call your doctor to discuss bulimia if you or
someone you care about:
Binges and then purges to get rid of
Is concerned about weight and is embarrassed about eating
Shows signs of an eating disorder, such as secretive
eating habits, a preoccupation with body image, or an unhealthy
Taking a wait-and-see approach (called watchful
waiting) is not appropriate if you think you or someone you know may have an
eating disorder. Call a doctor or an eating disorder
hotline to discuss your concerns and learn what you can do to help.
Who to see
Bulimia may be diagnosed and treated by
the following health professionals:
There is no single
test that can diagnose bulimia or any other eating disorder. But these
illnesses may have a visible effect on your health and eating habits.
If your doctor thinks that you may have an eating disorder, he or she
will check you for signs of problems caused by your diet, such as malnutrition
or starvation. He or she also may ask questions about your mental well-being.
It is common for a treatable mental health problem (such as
obsessive-compulsive disorder) to play a part in an
Common exams and tests for a possible eating
Questions about your
medical history, including your physical and emotional
health, both present and past.
physical exam to check your heart, lungs, blood
pressure, weight, mouth, skin, and hair for diet problems.
Blood tests to check for signs of malnutrition, such
potassium levels or other chemical
can show whether your bones have been weakened (osteopenia) by
A person can have bulimia and be underweight, average
weight, or overweight. Most people with bulimia are in their normal weight
range. Many binge in secret and deny that they may have a problem. These
factors can make bulimia hard to diagnose.
People with bulimia
often seek medical care for related health concerns, such as
fatigue or stomach problems caused by repeated
Early, accurate diagnosis and treatment of
bulimia can decrease the chances of long-term health problems and even death in
severe cases. Unfortunately, there is no routine screening for eating
disorders. It is common for a person with bulimia to try to hide symptoms,
which can make it hard to detect. Most often a loved one thinks that there
is a problem and seeks help for bulimia. It is common for a person to have
bulimia for a long time and to develop serious health problems before anyone
realizes that the person has the disorder.
psychological counseling and sometimes medicines such
as antidepressants. Treatment does not usually require staying in the hospital,
although this is sometimes needed. Both professional counseling and
antidepressant medicine can help reduce episodes of binging and purging and
help you recover from bulimia. Both are long-term treatments that may require
weeks or months before you notice significant results. You may need treatment
with counseling and possibly medicines for more than a year.
Bulimia that occurs with another condition may take longer to treat. And you
may need more than one type of treatment. If you have another condition that
commonly occurs with bulimia, such as
substance abuse, your doctor may want to treat that
People who seek treatment for bulimia or another
eating disorder may have other health problems caused
by the disorder. If you have had bulimia for a long time without treatment, or
if you have used substances such as laxatives, diuretics, or ipecac syrup to
purge, then you may have a health problem such as
dehydration that needs treatment first. In serious
cases, these conditions related to bulimia may require you to spend time in the
Initial treatment depends how
bulimia is and how long you have had it.
If you have no other conditions that need treatment first, then treatment
for bulimia usually consists of:
Eat three meals and two snacks a day and
avoid unhealthy diets.
Reduce concern about your body weight and
Understand and reduce triggers of binge eating by examining
your personal relationships and emotions.
Develop a plan to learn
proper coping skills to prevent future
Antidepressant medicines.Antidepressants can help lower the number of
binge-purge cycles you have and may also be used to treat another related
condition, such as
Treatment if the condition gets worse
develop other health problems such as
dehydration or an esophageal tear because of bulimia,
you may need to stay in the hospital or in an
eating disorder treatment facility.
Sometimes people with
bulimia get discouraged because recovery can take a
long time and
relapse is common. If you or the person with bulimia
feels very discouraged or feels
suicidal, call a doctor or other health professional
immediately to get help.
What to think about
Treatment with an antidepressant
medicine alone may not be enough. The most effective treatment for bulimia may
be a combination of psychological counseling and antidepressants.4
Eating disorders are hard to treat.
Recovery may take months to years. The sooner treatment begins, the better the
chance for a full recovery.
Unfortunately, many people don't seek
treatment for mental health problems. You may not seek treatment because you
think the symptoms are not bad enough or that you can work things out on your
own. But getting treatment is important.
There is no known way to prevent
bulimia. Early treatment may be the best way to
prevent the disorder from progressing. Knowing the signs of bulimia and seeking
immediate medical care can help prevent long-term health problems caused by
There are many ways that adults can help children and
teens develop a healthy view of themselves and learn to approach food and
exercise with a positive attitude. Doing this may prevent some children and
teens from developing this disorder.
Family members will also need to support the person's goals
for healing. Learning about the disorder will be helpful for the entire
family. Also, show support of a loved one who has bulimia. Offer
support if the person gets discouraged about how long treatment is taking.
Listen to his or her feelings.
Medicines such as antidepressants may
reduce the frequency of the binge-purge episodes of
bulimia. They may also be used to treat other mental
health problems, such as
depression, that often occur along with bulimia. And
you may need antacids to decrease stomach acid or bulk laxatives such as
Citrucel to replace the overuse of more harsh laxatives.
Antidepressant medicines are used to reduce the
frequency of binge-purge cycles and treat any related
Nutritional counseling, which teaches the person to
eat three meals and two snacks a day and to avoid unhealthy diets.
Dialectical behavior therapy, which is a long-term
approach that focuses on helping the person regulate emotions. Coping better
with life's challenges and negative emotions should help you reduce the
Group counseling, which may enhance
individual therapy. Often it is helpful to speak with other people who have
Family therapy. Family members can be
very helpful to their loved one's recovery, especially for an adolescent with
bulimia. Family therapy teaches about the disorder and ways to help.
programs that provide self-help materials, such as manuals or computer-based
activities, may be useful in treating eating disorders. But most people who
have an eating disorder also need counseling and possibly medicine.
Although it isn't
part of the treatment of bulimia, relieving stress can help during recovery.
Techniques for managing stress include:
but not excessive, physical activity is one of the most effective stress
shows that expressing yourself in writing can be a very effective way to reduce
your stress level.6
Expressing your feelings. Talking, laughing, crying, and
expressing anger are normal parts of the emotional healing
Doing something you enjoy. A hobby
or other healthy leisure activity that is meaningful to you can help you relax.
Volunteer work or work that helps others can be a powerful
The Bulimia Nervosa Resource Guide provides information
for people who have bulimia and for their friends and family. Resources include
evidence-based information, checklists, tips, and assistance in finding a local
bulimia treatment center.
KidsHealth for Parents, Children, and
Nemours Home Office
10140 Centurion Parkway
Jacksonville, FL 32256
This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It
has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and
diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website
offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing
age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can
sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.
Mental Health America
2000 North Beauregard Street, 6th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22311
1-800-969-NMHA (1-800-969-6642) referral service for help with depression (703) 684-7722
Mental Health America (formerly known as the National
Mental Health Association) is a nonprofit agency devoted to helping people of
all ages live mentally healthier lives. Its website has information about
mental health conditions. It also addresses issues such as grief, stress,
bullying, and more. It includes a confidential depression screening test for
anyone who would like to take it. The short test may help you decide whether
your symptoms are related to depression.
National Eating Disorders Association
603 Stewart Street
Seattle, WA 98101
1-800-931-2237 (206) 382-3587
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is a large
nonprofit organization in the United States dedicated to the prevention of
eating disorders. NEDA helps educate people with eating disorders and their
families about their conditions and also provides information for health
professionals. The organization's Web site will help you locate treatment
referrals for anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and issues surrounding
body image and weight.
National Institute of Mental Health
6001 Executive Boulevard
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provides
information to help people better understand mental health, mental disorders,
and behavioral problems. NIMH does not provide referrals to mental health
professionals or treatment for mental health problems.
Weight-Control Information Network
1 WIN Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3665
The Weight-control Information Network (WIN) is a
service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney
Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. WIN supplies information
on weight control, obesity, and nutritional disorders for the public and for
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Sadock BJ, et al. ( 2007). Bulimia nervosa and eating disorder not otherwise specified. In Kaplan and Sadock's Synopsis of Psychiatry, Behavioral Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry, 10th ed., pp. 735–739. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Sadock BJ, Sadock VA (2010). Eating disorders. In Kaplan and Sadock's Pocket Handbook of Clinical Psychiatry, 5th ed., pp. 259–268. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Yager J, et al. (2006). Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients With Eating Disorders, 3rd ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association. Also available online: http://www.psychiatryonline.com/pracGuide/PracticePDFs/EatingDisorders3ePG_04-28-06.pdf.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.