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What is bulimia?

  • Bulimia, also called bulimia nervosa, is an eating disorder.
  • Someone with bulimia might binge on food and then vomit (purge) in a cycle of binging and purging.
  • Binge eating refers to quickly eating large amounts of food over short periods of time.
  • Purging involves forced vomiting or the misuse of laxatives. The bulimia sufferer might induce vomiting by putting their finger down their throat or by consuming a substance that causes vomiting, like syrup of ipecac.
  • Patients with eating disorders also might use diet pills, diuretics (which control blood pressure by increasing urination), or other medications due to a fear of gaining weight.
  • They might utilize excessive exercise, dieting, or fasting in an attempt to lose weight that might be gained from eating food or binging. 
  • Affecting nearly 1% of people in the United States at sometime in their lifetime, bulimia affects millions of people, women more often than men. Other statistics about bulimia include its tendency to affect more than 3% of women and that its frequency of occurrence has doubled since the 1960s.
  • The risks associated with bulimia are many. People with this or other eating disorders also often suffer from a personality disorder, substance abuse problem, or a mood problem, like depression or anxiety.
  • The strict medical definition of bulimia used by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) requires an average of at least one binge-purge episode a week for at least three months to make the diagnosis, but it's likely that some people with symptoms of bulimia may not fit these exact criteria.

A person with bulimia often feels a loss of control over their eating, in that they engage in compulsive overeating, as well as have guilt about their behavior. They are usually aware that their behavior is abnormal. Bulimia is most common in adolescent and young adult women. Despite the repeated binge-purge cycles, people with bulimia are often of normal or near-normal weight, which makes them different from people with anorexia nervosa (an eating disorder in which the person severely limits how much they eat). Bulimia is also different from binge eating disorder, an eating disorder in which the sufferer engages in recurring episodes of binge eating without engaging in purging behaviors to try to control his or her weight.

Last Reviewed 11/20/2017

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Bulimia Treatment

Treatment for bulimia involves psychological counseling and sometimes medicines such as antidepressants. Treatment does not usually require staying in the hospital, although this is sometimes needed. Both professional counseling and antidepressant medicine can help reduce episodes of binging and purging and help you recover from bulimia. Both are long-term treatments that may require weeks or months before you notice significant results. You may need treatment with counseling and possibly medicines for more than a year.

Bulimia that occurs with another condition may take longer to treat. And you may need more than one type of treatment. If you have another condition that commonly occurs with bulimia, such as depression or substance abuse, your doctor may want to treat that condition first.

People who seek treatment for bulimia or another eating disorder may have other health problems caused by the disorder. If you have had bulimia for a long time without treatment, or if you have used substances such as laxatives, diuretics, or ipecac syrup to purge, then you may have a health problem such as dehydration that needs treatment first. In serious cases, these conditions related to bulimia may require you to spend time in the hospital.


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Bulimia »

Bulimia nervosa (BN) is one of the eating disorders identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR).

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