Bulimia and Teenagers: Risks, Dangers, and Complications

As a severe psychiatric disorder, bulimia nervosa impacts countless individuals across the world, including women and men of all ages, backgrounds, races, and genders. Teenagers can be susceptible to developing bulimia nervosa, particularly as eating disorders often arise during times of transition and change, such as puberty.

Some family members, teachers, coaches, and trusted friends may mistake bulimia for a “fad” that teenagers will “grow out of”, but the reality is that bulimia can result in detrimental physical and emotional consequences, including death.

Denial Is Common Among Family Members

Often, we feel so hopeful and supportive of the young person that we want to avoid rushing to conclusions that they have a “disorder”. So, we may fight an inclination to make light of signals that something is off. It is wise to grab the bull by the horns, and investigate and discuss your concerns with the adolescent, rather than wait and hope it “goes away”, in silence.

How can you recognize if a teenager you care for is suffering with bulimia? Be aware of these following signs and symptoms that may reveal a severe eating disorder:

  • Frequent disappearance to the bathroom during and after mealtimes
  • Fluctuations in weight from purging and bingeing episodes
  • Ritualistic behaviors involving food, such as hording or stealing food, eating an abnormal amount of food in a short period of time, dieting in a rigid manner or appearing anxious/nervous while eating
  • Complaint of physical complications, such as dizziness, fatigue, sore throat, tremors, blurred vision, or muscle cramps/weakness
  • Gastrointestinal distress, such as bloating, indigestion, cramps, constipation, nausea or diarrhea
  • Socially withdrawn and isolated from family and friends
  • Loss of period or normal menstruation
  • Obsessing with body image and weight
  • Frequent mood swings or personality shifts
  • Other compulsive behaviors, such as excessively exercising, counting calories, drinking, drug use or stealing
  • Dental complications, such as eroded teeth, bleeding gums, increased cavities
  • Smell or odor of vomit on body and/or clothes

Weight Is Not Necessarily an Indicator of Bulimia

These signs may indicate that your teenager is indeed struggling with bulimia and should be taken seriously. Teenagers who are experiencing bulimia may not have as obvious outward signs, as their weight is not necessarily an indicator of this eating disorder.

A teen can be at a healthy weight or even overweight and still be ill with bulimia, which may encourage them to hide their condition for years. For these reason, it is important to be aware of other signs that may indicate a more serious problem at hand.

Factors in the Development of Bulimia

A variety of factors may influence the development of bulimia in teenagers, including:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Family history
  • Environmental triggers
  • Societal pressures
  • Stressful life changes and transitions
  • Other co-occurring disorders, such as:
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder

A teenager who has suffered emotional, physical, or sexual abuse may increase their susceptibility to bulimia. The presence of other mental health disorders can also heighten the risk of bulimia, including alcoholism and substance abuse.

Bulimia Is a Serious Problem

Perhaps the most dangerous characteristic of this deadly eating disorder is how often it is underestimated. Many people may assume that since their teenager is experiencing the transition of puberty and often exploring new things in this phase of their life, abnormal behaviors with food may be justified.

However, if left undiagnosed and untreated, the effects of bulimia can prove detrimental. Some of the complications that may arise from bulimia in teenager include:

  • Rupture of the esophagus or stomach from persistent bingeing and purging episodes
  • Dental issues as teeth and gums are exposed to stomach acid from vomiting
  • Gastrointestinal distress

Other more severe consequences include:

  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Cardiovascular complications (such as cardiac arrest)
  • Damage to vital organs (such as the intestines, kidneys, and liver)

A teenager who suffers with bulimia can also suffer psychological disturbances, such as increased depression or suicide ideations.

Be Aware of the Signs and Symptoms of Bulimia

As a parent of caregiver of a teenager, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms that may result if bulimia has developed. Early identification of bulimia and interventions can lead to prompt treatment, which can dramatically improve the outcome and prognosis for a teen suffering with this eating disorder.

Bulimia is not something that should be taken lightly. If you suspect that a teenager you know is struggling with this eating disorder, be sure to intervene in an appropriate and helpful manner that encourages treatment. Having the opportunity to recover from bulimia can promote healing and spare a lifetime of difficulties and complications.

Article Contributed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC and Founder of Eating Disorder Hope and Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC for Eating Disorder Hope