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Bulimia is a serious eating disorder that can not only causes short-term problems to an individual’s health and quality of life but can also have a severe and life threatening impact on someone’s long-term health. 
While it’s possible to recover from bulimia, some long term effects of bulimia may require medical intervention in order to restore health and overall wellness.
What is Bulimia?
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by frequent episodes of bingeing followed by purging. Binging is different than overeating. Binging is when someone eats an amount of food that is larger than what most people would eat in the same amount of time.
After a binge episode, someone will purge in order to off-set the “consequences” of a binge. Purging behaviors can include self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives or diuretics, exercising, or fasting .
There is a stereotype that if someone has an eating disorder, you’ll be able to tell just by looking at them. This is sometimes the case in Anorexia nervosa because this eating disorder can lead to severe weight loss.
However, people struggling with bulimia may be underweight, overweight, or at a “normal” weight. That means you can’t tell someone has bulimia just by looking at them. This doesn’t mean that the health consequences of bulimia aren’t as severe as other eating disorders. There are serious health risks of bulimia.
What are the Short Term Consequences of Bulimia?
Some of the short-term consequences of bulimia include the following: [1,3]
- Severe dehydration
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Sore throat
- Stomach pain
- Blood sugar fluctuations
- Bacterial infections
- Feeling full after eating only small amounts
- Irregular heart rhythm
- Amenorrhea, aka absence of menstruation
- Swollen salivary glandsin the jaw or neck
- Hair loss
- Dry skin
- Yellow-orange skin
- Intestinal issues
- Acid reflux
- Sleep problems
While many of these symptoms can be treated successfully, if left untreated they can lead to severe medical complications. There may be barriers to getting medical attention for bulimia in the beginning phases of an eating disorder. Some potential barriers may include:
- Lack of access to medical care
- Lack of insight into severity of the eating disorder
- Denial about having an eating disorder
- Not disclosing symptoms to doctors or mental health professionals due to shame or embarrassment
These barriers can prevent someone from getting help. If the eating disorder continues to progress, untreated symptoms can lead to serious, long term conditions. 
What are the Long Term Consequences of Bulimia?
Bulimia can impact several different bodily systems. [1,3] About 90% of people with bulimia purge through laxative abuse and self-induced vomiting, so the majority of research focuses on the health effects of these behaviors. 
However, since some bulimic behaviors are similar to behaviors seen in other eating disorders, researchers have been able to discover the impact of other behaviors, such as restrictive eating and binging.
The following sections describe the potential long term effects of bulimia on different parts of the body. [1,3]
- 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
- Weakened heart muscles
- Cardiac arrest
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Ulcers in the lining of the intestines
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Bowel obstruction and perforation
- Partial colon resection
- Damaged nerve endings in the bowl
- Weakness in the esophageal sphincter
- Tearing of the esophagus
- Chronic acid reflux
- Esophagitis, which is inflammation of the esophagus that can lead to scarring
- Esophageal cancer
- Ruptured esophagus or stomach due to binging and purging
- Kidney damage
- Increased risk of kidney stones and kidney failure
- Hormonal imbalances, leading to amenorrhea
- Fertility issues
- Type 2 Diabetes
Can you Treat 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. Some long term symptoms, such as osteoporosis or Type 2 diabetes may require long-term medical management.
If you think you or a loved one may have bulimia, take the first step today and seek immediate medical help. There are different ways to reach out for help. You can talk to your doctor or mental health professional to get referrals for eating disorder treatment. You can also use this treatment finder
References: Mehler, P.S. & Rylander, M. (2015). Bulimia nervosa—medical complications. Journal of Eating Disorders, 3(12), 1-5.  American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596  National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.) Health consequences. Retrieved July 26th, 2022 from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences
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 November 7th, 2022, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on November 7th, 2022, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC
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- How Do Antidepressants Treat Bulimia?
- Electrolytes and Bulimia: Why Is This a Big Deal?
- Bulimia: Dental Problems Caused By Repeated Vomiting
- When Your Spouse Has Bulimia
- Risks of Bulimia During Pregnancy
- Laxative Abuse in Bulimia: Physical Consequences, Complications and Ramifications
- IPT Therapy – How it is Used for Bulimia Nervosa
- Weight Fluctuation, Chronic Dieting & Bulimia: How Bad is it on Your Body
- Bulimia and the Brain: How Is Neurobiology a Factor?