Think you or a loved one may have bulimia? Bulimia is a serious eating disorder that not only causes short-term problems to an individual’s health and quality of life but can also have severe (even life-threatening) effects on a person’s long-term health.
What is Bulimia?
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by frequent episodes of bingeing (eating a large amount of food in a short period of time) followed by purging (self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives or diuretics, exercising, fasting, etc.) .
Though the physical consequences of bulimia may not be as visibly obvious as in other eating disorders like anorexia nervosa (.g. extreme weight loss), bulimia is just as serious of an eating disorder. Not only does bulimia put an extreme burden on a person’s emotional and mental health (it is a mental health disorder, after all), it can also lead to severe short-term and long-term health problems.
Short Term Consequences
Some of the short term consequences of bulimia include the following:
- Severe dehydration
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Sore throat
- Stomach pain
- Irregular heart rhythm
- Amenorrhea (absence of menstruation)
- Swollen salivary glands in the jaw or neck
- Hair loss
- Dry skin
- Intestinal issues
- Acid reflux
- Sleep problems
If treated in a timely manner, many of the short-term consequences of bulimia will diminish or completely disappear once the individual gets medical help and recovers from bulimia. However, since bulimics don’t typically conform to the traditional “eating disorder image” (severely underweight) and because they often hide their binge-purge behaviors from others, their friends, family, doctors, and even the individual themself may fail to realize they have a serious eating disorder until the condition has progressed to a dangerous level. Unfortunately, if bulimia is left untreated for too long, the short-term consequences listed above can lead to serious, long-term health problems that may not easily clear up or go away once the person stops bingeing and purging.
Long Term Consequences
As bulimia progresses, the effects of bingeing and purging start to cause more severe and permanent damage to the body. For example, when the body isn’t getting enough calories from food, it starts consuming muscle. If this goes on long enough, the heart (the body’s most important muscle) will begin to weaken, which can eventually lead to coronary heart disease and even death .
Another long-term effect of bulimia is esophageal issues. Purge vomiting can cause the esophagus to tear and become weak, which can then lead to a host of problems, including chronic acid reflux. Thanks to the stomach acids involved in acid reflux, the mucous membranes of the esophagus may eventually begin to erode, causing a condition known as Barrett’s esophagus. This can then lead to the development of esophageal cancer.
Some of the other long-term consequences of bulimia include:
- Enamel erosion
- Damage to the salivary glands
- Tooth sensitivity and decay
- Gum disease
- Tooth loss
- Low bone density
- Brittle bones
- Low blood pressure
- Heart palpitations
- Irregular heartbeat
- Coronary heart disease
- Cardiomyopathy (weakened heart walls)
- Cardiac arrest
- Ulcers in the lining of the intestines
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Bowel obstruction and perforation
- Partial colon resection
- Use of colostomy bag
- Weakness in the esophageal sphincter
- Tearing of the esophagus
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (chronic acid reflux)
- Esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus that can lead to scarring)
- Esophageal cancer
Other long-term consequences of bulimia include damage to the kidneys, increased risk of kidney stones and kidney failure, diabetes, high cholesterol, hormonal imbalances, fertility problems, chronic dehydration, chronic fatigue, and electrolyte imbalances.
Treating the Long Term & Short Term Consequences of Bulimia
Fortunately, many of the short-term consequences of bulimia can be treated and reversed once appropriate medical care is received and bulimia behaviors cease. However, if left untreated, bulimia can lead to a host of serious health problems that may persist for years to come.
If you think you or a loved one may have bulimia, take the first step today and seek immediate medical help. Start by talking to your doctor about bulimia or call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237 to find out more about treatment options in your area.
References: National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (UK). Eating Disorders: Core Interventions in the Treatment and Management of Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders. Leicester (UK): British Psychological Society (UK); 2004. (NICE Clinical Guidelines, No. 9.) 2, Eating disorders. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK49318/
About the Author:
Sarah Musick is a freelance writer who specializes in eating disorder awareness and education. After battling with a 4-years long eating disorder, she made it her mission to help others find hope and healing in recovery.
Her work has been featured on numerous eating disorder blogs and websites. When she’s not writing, Sarah is off traveling the world with her husband.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published February 19, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on February 19, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC