Bulimia nervosa is a severe eating disorder that can significantly affect one’s psychological and physical health. The act of binging and purging can cause a variety of physical and mental health problems that are potentially life-threatening. Recognizing urgent warning signs and knowing when to seek bulimia treatment immediately is essential to avoid life-threatening consequences.
Most Common Signs of Bulimia That Suggest the Need for Immediate Treatment
The physical effects of bulimia depend on what behaviors individuals use to compensate for binge eating. Behaviors used to prevent weight gain after binge eating include purging by self-induced vomiting, using laxatives or enemas, excessive exercise, and fasting. This eating disorder is life-threatening because these behaviors can result in dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, irregular heartbeat, organ damage, stroke, and heart attack. Seek treatment right away if you or someone you know have the following signs (1):
- Tooth decay and gum damage
- Acid reflux
- Russel’s sign: Calluses that form on the knuckles due to skin damage during self-induced vomiting
- Swollen salivary glands
- Gastrointestinal problems: Irregular bowel movements, constipation, diarrhea, or abdominal pain
- Blood present in vomit or stool
- Irregular heartbeat
- Dizziness or fainting
Although the physical effects of bulimia are often seen as the most life-threatening, psychological effects are equally as important. Individuals suffering from bulimia are at higher risk for suicidal behaviors. They experience a great deal of psychological turmoil. These feelings, such as guilt, shame, and isolation, can increase depression and suicidal thoughts. As many as 38% of individuals living with bulimia have had suicidal thoughts during their lifetime, and one-third of individuals have attempted suicide (2). Even if you notice just one of these symptoms, seeking immediate help can save you or your loved one’s life.
Ways to Tell the Difference Between Binge Eating and Bulimia
It may be difficult to tell the difference between these eating disorders because some of their symptoms overlap. Binge eating and bulimia have the following in common:
- Eating in secret
- Eating larger amounts of food than normal
- Eating until uncomfortably full
- Feeling a lack of control
- Feeling guilty or disgusted after overeating
The main difference between these two eating disorders is that bulimia is followed by purging. Those living with binge eating disorder do not use purging behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting and laxatives. Individuals suffering from bulimia also focus more on their body image and weight (3).
Risks Associated with Delaying Treatment for Bulimia
Sometimes, we feel like we can handle things by ourselves and recover on our own. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Recovery from an eating disorder like bulimia is difficult and not something to do without support.
There are no home remedies for bulimia, and specialized treatment is necessary for a successful, long-term recovery. The longer an eating disorder like bulimia goes untreated, the higher the risk for serious long-term or permanent effects on your health and body. Permanent complications include heart, liver, and kidney failure and even brain damage. In the worst-case scenario, the risk is death (1).
What Kind of Support Is Available for People Suffering from Bulimia?
Many treatment programs exist for all types of eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa. These include inpatient, residential, partial hospitalization, and outpatient programs. For those who are not medically stable, inpatient treatment is necessary. Doctors, nurses, therapists, and dietitians will provide individuals with personalized treatment plans within these programs. Treatment may include the following (4):
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Family-based treatment
- Medication treatment such as an antidepressant or an anti-anxiolytic
- Nutrition education and meal planning
In addition to formal treatment programs, many online resources, such as the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and peer support groups, exist. These resources are a significant addition to professional treatment to broaden your support system and help you stay motivated throughout recovery.
Regardless of which treatment option you choose, you can recover completely. Early treatment can help reduce the risk of long-term physical and mental health consequences. Selah House offers compassionate and individualized care that supports long-term recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with bulimia, contact our team today at 765.442.3551 to get the help you need.
- The Bulimia Project. (2022, October, 14). Bulimia side effects: Long-term and short-term. https://bulimia.com/bulimia-health-risks/physical-side-effects/#:~:text=Left%20untreated%2C%20bulimia%20has%20the,attack%20can%20be%20life%2Dthreatening.
- Smith, A.R, Zuromski, K.L. & Dodd, D.R. (2017). Eating disorders and suicidality: what we know, what we don’t know, and suggestions for future research. Current Opinion in Psychology, 22, 63-67. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2352250X17301859?via%3Dihub
- National Library of Medicine. (n.d.) Table 1, DSM-IV and DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for binge-eating disorder. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK338301/table/introduction.t1/
- Mayo Clinic. (2018, May 10). Bulimia nervosa. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bulimia/symptoms-causes/syc-20353615
Kate Delaney Chen, BSN, RN-BC is a healthcare writer and registered nurse with over 17 years of bedside experience. She specializes in Psychiatric Nursing and Nephrology and currently works at a nationally recognized inpatient Eating Disorders Program.