Bulimia is an eating disorder. People with bulimia are overly concerned with their body shape and weight. They will overeat (binge) and then purge by vomiting or using a laxative or enema to maintain body weight. An affected person may also fast, follow extreme diets, or overexercise.

People with bulimia often feel a lack of control during their eating binges. Food is often eaten quickly and secretly. This is followed by feelings of guilt and shame and the desire to purge to remove the excess calories.

Bulimia is more common in young women. But men can also have it. Many factors may lead a person to become bulimic. These include:

  • Society's emphasis on being thin

  • Family attitudes toward diet and weight control when growing up

  • Family history of bulimia

  • Brain chemistry

People with bulimia often have an average weight, at least part of the time. But food and weight gain are a constant concern and may get in the way of other activities.

If you have bulimia, it can severely damage your body. Certain chemicals in your blood (electrolytes) can become out of balance and you can become dehydrated. When severe, these problems can affect the heart. They can cause an irregular heartbeat and even sudden death. In rare cases, binging and purging can damage the esophagus and stomach, causing tears or rupture.

Symptoms of bulimia may include:

  • Severe weight loss

  • Vomiting and diarrhea

  • Indigestion, acid reflux, heartburn, or belly pain

  • Blood in vomit or stool

  • Fast, slow, or irregular heart rate

  • Trouble breathing

  • Lack of energy

  • Confusion

  • Fainting

  • Seizures

  • Skin color changes, dry skin

  • Loss of the enamel on the front teeth

Treatment involves both individual and group therapy. Antidepressants may be used. With motivation and good treatment, people do recover from this illness.

Home care

Here is what you can do at home:

  • If you have been prescribed medicine, take it every day even if you think you don’t need it.

  • Along with seeing a therapist or counselor, talk about your feelings and thoughts with a friend or family member who supports you.

  • Keep your appointments with your healthcare provider or therapist. During your visit, be completely honest about your binging and purging habits.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider as advised. For more information, contact:

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness, 800-950-6264, www.nami.org

  • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, www.anad.org 

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these happen:

  • Thoughts of harming yourself or another

  • Unable to take care of yourself

  • Worsening depression or anxiety

  • Worsening of binge eating episodes, either in frequency of episodes or amount of food ingested 

  • Feeling out of control

  • Dizziness, weakness, or fainting

  • Fast or irregular heartbeat (palpitations)

  • Blood in your vomit or stool (red or black color)

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