Bulimia Nervosa

What is bulimia nervosa?

A negative body image is not uncommon among today’s youth and teens, especially among girls. Sometimes, however, body image distortion and associated behaviors spiral out of control. Bulimia nervosa, usually referred to as “bulimia,” is defined as uncontrolled episodes of overeating (bingeing) and usually followed by:

  • purging (self-induced vomiting)
  • misuse of laxatives, enemas or medications that cause increased production of urine
  • fasting
  • excessive exercise to control weight

Bingeing, in this situation, is defined as eating much larger amounts of food than would normally be consumed within a short period of time (usually less than two hours). Eating binges occur at least twice a week for three months and may occur as often as several times a day.

Studies suggest that there has been an increase in the number of cases of bulimia over the past 50 years in the U.S. It’s estimated that 1 to 5 percent of adolescents have bulimia. An estimated 1.1 percent to 4.2 percent of females in the U.S. are reported to have bulimia.

Bulimia, and the medical problems that result, can damage nearly every organ system in the body, and may be fatal. Early  are extremely important.

What are the possible complications of bulimia?

Bulimia is a serious disease. Here are some of the complications a young adult with bulimia may develop:

  • serious electrolyte problems
  • irregular menstrual periods
  • dehydration
  • swollen face
  • sore throat
  • tooth decay
  • dry, flaky skin
  • constant upset stomach
  • heartburn
  • constipation
  • depression
  • weight fluctuations

In addition, electrolyte abnormalities such as low potassium levels from the body losing potassium after vomiting, bulimia can lead to serious heart problems and even death.

How we care for bulimia nervosa

The Eating Disorders Program at Boston Children’s Hospital provides comprehensive evaluation and treatment services every year to more than 200 adolescents with bulimia, anorexia nervosa, binge-eating disorder and related eating disorders. Staffed by expert specialists, the program addresses your child’s medical, nutritional and psychological needs in order to effectively treat her disorder.

Our health care team also gives guidance to many providers in the northeastern U.S. and beyond.

Providers from the outpatient Eating Disorders Program and other members of Boston Children’s Division of Adolescent Medicine have helped develop inpatient clinical guidelines for children who are admitted to the hospital for eating disorder-related medical needs.

Our providers also consulted on the National Eating Disorders Screening Project. They have advocated for insurance coverage for eating disorders at the Massachusetts State House, and give frequent presentations on eating disorders throughout New England.