Is Purging an Eating Disorder?

Purging disorder isn’t an official diagnosis in the DSM-5. The DSM-5 is the manual that doctors and mental health professionals use in order to diagnose medical and mental health conditions.

When professionals talk about purging disorder, they’re referring to certain eating disorder behaviors. In the DSM-5, this would likely fall under the category of “Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder” (OSFED). This article will go over the ins and outs of this condition.

PMS symptoms

Purging Disorder Definition

Someone who struggles with purging disorder does things in order to lose weight or change their body shape. There’s a few different ways to purge, such as:

  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Laxative use
  • Compulsive or excessive exercise
  • Fasting

Someone with OSFED who struggles with purging does not meet criteria for other eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.

Purging Disorder Statistics

Here are some statistics about purging disorder:

  • About 2.5 to 5% of adolescent girls struggle with this disorder
  • 97% of people with an eating disorder are also struggling with another mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression
  • 19.1% of teenage girls fast for 24 hours or more compared to 7.6% of teenage boys
  • 12.6% of teenage girls and 5.5% of teenage boys use diet pills
  • 7.8% of teenage girls and 2.9% of teenage boys vomit or use laxatives to avoid gaining weight
  • Gay and bisexual boys are more likely to have engaged in purging behaviors compared to heterosexual boys
  • Gay males were 12 times more likely to purge than heterosexual males [2,4]

Bulimia vs Purging Disorder: Differences and Similarities

While people with bulimia and purging disorder both struggle with purging, there is a key difference between these two eating disorders. Someone with bulimia struggles with cycles of binging and purging.

For an individual dealing with bulimia, purging is in response to binging. This means they purge in order to get rid of the food and calories from their binge. People with purging disorder purge even though they don’t struggle with binging.

woman looking in refrigerator at night

Purging Disorder Symptoms & Warning Signs

Symptoms of purging disorder may be similar to other eating disorders. Symptoms and warning signs may include:

  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Self-esteem based on weight or body size
  • Purging (as described above)
  • Difficulty functioning at work, school, or within relationships
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
  • Drinking excessive amounts of water
  • Excessive use of breath-freshening products, like mouthwash or mints
  • Frequently looking in the mirror or measuring their body [1,2]

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Complications: What Are the Possible Purging Disorder Effects?

An eating disorder can have profound effects on someone’s mental and physical health. Some possible complications include:

  • Tooth decay
  • Cavities
  • Fainting
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Dizziness
  • Abnormal labs, such as anemia or electrolyte imbalance
  • Swollen face and throat
  • Mood swings
  • Heart complications
  • Kidney failure
  • Digestive problems
  • Dehydration
  • Scarred hands
  • Nutrient deficiencies [1,2]

woman getting help

What are the Causes of Purging Disorder?

Researchers and mental health professionals aren’t exactly sure what causes purging disorder. This is likely because eating disorders are complex mental health issues that are the result of multiple factors, such as genetics, environment, or life experiences.

A study done in 2014 looked at risk factors for purging in young women [5]. These researchers discovered the following factors increased the likelihood for purging in teenage girls:

  • High BMI: Young women who felt they were overweight were more likely to purge.
  • Low self-esteem: Self-esteem is the beliefs and feelings you have about who you are. The individuals who had lower self-esteem were more likely to display disordered behaviors.
  • Depression: The girls in the study who struggled with depression were significantly more likely to engage in purging behavior
  • Childhood Adversity: Childhood adversity refers to any childhood experience that could pose a threat to a child’s emotional or physical wellbeing. For example, physical abuse, losing a parent, or experiencing bullying are adverse childhood events. The study showed that people who had experienced adversity as children were more likely to display purging behaviors [5].

Other possible risk factors include genetic and environmental influences. It is widely believed that eating disorders have a genetic component.

Other environmental influences that are shown to contribute to eating disorders are weight stigma and the glorification of thin bodies in the media. The societal pressure to have a certain body shape and size is one of the biggest factors that contributes to developing an eating disorder.

Treatment Options: How to Stop Purging Disorder

Treatment can look different for each person. Effective treatment is partially determined by how severe someone’s eating disorder is. There are different levels of care for eating disorder treatment. These are:

  • Hospitalization aka “inpatient”
  • Residential
  • Intensive outpatient day programs
  • Outpatient

Regardless of what level of care someone receives, treatment is likely going to include several different team members. An eating disorder treatment team typically includes a doctor, psychiatrist, registered dietitian, and mental health clinician. There are also support groups that are available in treatment centers and through Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) that may be helpful.

getting help from a counselor

It can be overwhelming to admit to yourself that you or a loved one is struggling with purging disorder. Admitting this to yourself is a great first step towards recovery.

Recovery is possible, but it is hard work and requires support from trained and qualified professionals. In addition to counseling, nutritional support, and medical supervision, here are a few things that can support your recovery:

  • Journaling
  • Mindfulness or meditation
  • Getting support from friends or family
  • Limiting stress
  • Joining a support group

These are not replacements for treatment, but are things that can be added on to treatment in order to make you more resilient. Like we said, recovery is difficult but it is possible—for everyone. If you don’t already know where to find treatment, don’t worry.

There are several tools that can help you find a qualified professional to help you recover from an eating disorder. You can use our treatment finder or go to the National Association of Eating Disorders to find treatment. If you have insurance, you can also contact your insurance company to see which providers are in network.

It can be intimidating to start treatment. Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. Your health and wellbeing are worth every investment—even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. Promise.


[1] Healthline. (n.d). Purging disorder. Retrieved September 15th, 2021 from

[2] National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d). Warning signs and symptoms. Retrieved September 15th, 2021 from

[3] National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d). Statistics & research on eating disorders. Retrieved September 15th, 2021 from

[4] MedicineNet. (n.d). What is purging disorder? Retrieved September 15th, 2021 from

[5] Stephen, E.M., Rose, R., Kenney, L., Rosselli-Navarra, F., Striegel Weissman, R. (2014). Adolescent risk factors for purging in young women: findings from the national longitudinal study of adolescent health. Journal of Eating Disorders, 2(1), 1-9.

Author: Samantha Bothwell, LMFT
Page Last Reviewed and Updated on October 14, 2021 by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC