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Home > Patient & Family Resources > Health Library > Anorexia Nervosa
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Anorexia nervosa (say "an-uh-RECK-see-uh nur-VOH-suh") is a type of eating disorder. People who have anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight. They severely limit the amount of food they eat and can become dangerously thin.
Anorexia affects both the body and the mind. It may start as dieting, but it gets out of control. You think about food, dieting, and weight all the time. You have a distorted body image. Other people say you are too thin, but when you look in the mirror, you see your body as overweight.
Anorexia usually starts in the teen years. It's much more common in females than males. Early treatment can be effective. The earlier it is treated, the better the chances someone can recover from anorexia. Untreated anorexia can lead to starvation and serious health problems, such as bone thinning (osteoporosis), kidney damage, and heart problems. Some people die from these problems.
If you or someone you know has anorexia, get help right away. The longer this problem goes on, the harder it is to overcome. Over time and with treatment, a person with anorexia can feel better and stay at a healthy weight.
Eating disorders are complex, and experts don't really know what causes them. But they may be due to a mix of genetics, family behaviors, social factors, and personality traits. You may be more likely to have anorexia if:
People who have anorexia often strongly deny that they have a problem. They don't see or believe that they do. It's usually up to their loved ones to get help for them. If you are worried about someone, you can look for certain signs.
People who have anorexia:
Their lives become focused on controlling their weight. They may:
If your doctor thinks that you may have an eating disorder, he or she will compare your weight with the expected weight for someone of your height and age. He or she will also check your heart, lungs, blood pressure, skin, and hair to look for problems caused by not eating enough. You may also have blood tests or X-rays.
Your doctor may ask questions about how you feel. It is common for a treatable mental health problem such as depression or anxiety to play a part in an eating disorder.
All people who have anorexia need treatment. Even if you, your child, or someone else you care about has only a couple of the signs of an eating disorder, get help now. Early treatment gives the best chance of overcoming anorexia.
Treatment can help you get back to and stay at a healthy weight. It can also help you learn good eating habits and learn to feel better about yourself. Because anorexia is both a physical and emotional problem, you may work with a doctor, a dietitian, and a counselor.
If your weight has dropped too low, you will need to be treated in a hospital.
Anorexia can take a long time to overcome, and it is common to fall back into unhealthy habits. If you are having problems, don't try to handle them on your own. Get help now.
It can be very scary to realize that someone you care about has an eating disorder. But you can help.
If you think your child has anorexia:
If you're worried about someone you know:
The cause of anorexia nervosa is not fully understood. It is thought to develop from a mix of physical, emotional, and social triggers.
Common feelings and actions that are linked to anorexia nervosa include:footnote 1
Some people who have anorexia may also have times where they binge eat and make themselves vomit or use laxatives or diuretics to lose weight. Breakdown of the enamel on the teeth is a common symptom of long-term vomiting.
Common physical signs of malnutrition from anorexia include:footnote 2
People who have anorexia often form rituals associated with eating. These may include:
In some cases, people who have eating disorders can feel suicidal.
If someone you know shows warning signs of suicide, make sure that the person is not left alone. Seek help from a mental health professional immediately.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, talk to someone about it. Call a local suicide hotline, your local health department, or the national suicide hotline (1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255), or seek help at a local hospital emergency room.
Anorexia almost always begins with a plan to follow a strict weight-loss diet. Over time, severely limiting foods leads to malnutrition and unhealthy weight loss.
As malnutrition sets in, the brain and metabolism change. This limits the appetite, how your body uses food, and your ability to think clearly and make good decisions. As the illness gets worse, irrational behaviors begin, such as making rules about food or making yourself vomit out of fear of gaining weight.
Starvation and malnourishment from anorexia can cause complications, such as osteoporosis or an irregular heartbeat. Often other mental health conditions occur along with anorexia, such as depression.
After anorexia starts, returning to normal eating is very hard without help. When left untreated, anorexia can last for a lifetime.
Early treatment of anorexia offers the best chance of recovery. People who have anorexia tend to strongly deny that they have a problem and are secretive about their eating. So their family members or loved ones usually have to get help for them.
The risk for anorexia nervosa increases if you:
For some people, limiting what they eat can meet a need for personal control and self-esteem. Some teens may fall into this pattern as a way to cope with big changes and challenges.
A parent may have cause for concern if:
Call 911, the national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), or other emergency services immediately if:
Call your doctor now if you have been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and:
Call your doctor if you:
Watchful waiting is a wait-and-see approach. It's not a safe way to handle a possible eating disorder.
Getting early treatment improves your chances of overcoming anorexia.
There is no single test that can diagnose anorexia. But this illness has a visible effect on your health and eating habits.
If your doctor thinks that you may have an eating disorder, he or she will check you for signs of malnutrition or starvation. Your doctor may also ask questions about your mental well-being. It is common for a treatable mental health problem (such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder) to happen with an eating disorder.
Common exams and tests for a possible eating disorder include:
If your doctor thinks that you may have organ damage, doing heart or kidney tests can be helpful.
All people with anorexia need treatment. In most cases, this involves seeing a doctor and having regular counseling sessions. A hospital stay is needed for those who are seriously underweight or who have severe medical problems. The goals of treatment are to restore a healthy weight and healthy eating habits.
If you have an eating disorder, try not to resist treatment. Although you may be very afraid of gaining weight, try to think of weight gain as a life-saving measure. With help, you can learn to eat well and keep your weight at a healthy level.
Ideally, you can take charge of anorexia with the help of a team that includes a mental health professional (such as a psychologist or licensed counselor), a medical health professional (such as a doctor or nurse), and a registered dietitian.
If your medical condition is not life-threatening, your treatment likely will include:
An important part of your recovery will include:
For the teen with anorexia, family involvement is a key part of treatment. Family therapy helps parents support their child, both emotionally and physically.
Any brothers or sisters also need support during treatment. Family, group, and individual counseling are all effective and are often combined.
Ongoing (chronic) forms of anorexia may require treatment for many years, including hospitalizations when needed. Ongoing treatment usually includes psychological counseling. A counselor will help you make your own plan to use new coping and stress management skills and prevent relapse. Your counselor can help you at those times when it is hard to follow healthy ways of thinking about food and your body.
Some people fully recover from anorexia. Many people with anorexia have ups and downs over the years. Try thinking of treatment as an ongoing process.
Being severely underweight can cause dehydration, starvation, and electrolyte imbalance, any of which can be life-threatening.
If anorexia causes life-threatening medical problems, you need urgent medical treatment. A hospital stay is needed for those who are seriously underweight or who have severe medical problems. This can include several weeks in the hospital followed by outpatient treatment to monitor your progress. Treatment includes:
Insurance coverage varies for inpatient treatment of eating disorders. Check with your insurance carrier to learn about your coverage.
Anorexia can be a lifelong illness. Many people who have anorexia recover, some improve, and some have problems with anorexia throughout their lives.
Many people don't get treatment for mental health problems. You may not seek treatment because you think your symptoms are not bad enough or that you can work things out on your own. But getting treatment is important.
If you need help deciding whether to see your doctor, read about some reasons why people don't get help and how to overcome them.
There is no known way to prevent anorexia nervosa. Early treatment may be the best way to prevent the disorder from progressing. Knowing the early signs and seeking treatment right away can help prevent complications of anorexia.
There are many ways adults can help children and teens form a healthy view of themselves and learn to approach food and exercise with a positive attitude. Doing this may prevent some children and teens from having this disorder.
Continuing good care at home will help you recover from anorexia nervosa. Set goals with your doctor, mental health professional, and registered dietitian. Include goals in the areas of:
Ask your family members to also support your emotional and physical goals for healing. If someone close to you has trouble understanding eating disorders, share what you have learned in treatment.
You may have used anorexia to deal with the stresses of life. Learning how to cope with stress without anorexia is an important part of recovery. Relieving stress in a healthy way can help you recover, improve your quality of life, and stay healthy.
All families have patterns that can get in the way of change. To make healthy change easier, have everyone in the family take a look at how they handle their loved one's eating disorder.
Keep in mind that severe weight loss makes a person unable to think clearly or function well in daily life. This is a sign that a loved one needs medical care.
There are no medicines to treat anorexia nervosa. But if you are depressed or anxious, your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant medicine.
An antidepressant may help if you also have depression, an anxiety disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
If you have anorexia and are taking medicine, you must have regular checkups. Being malnourished or severely underweight can change the amount of medicine in your body. Too much or too little can be dangerous.
During a checkup, your doctor will note your heart rate, temperature, and blood pressure. You may also have blood tests to check the amount of medicine in your blood.
Agras WS (2008). The eating disorders. In DC Dale, DD Federman, eds., ACP Medicine, section 13, chap. 9. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
Guarda AS, Joffe A (2011). Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. In M Augustyn et al., eds., Zuckerman Parker Handbook of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics for Primary Care, 3rd ed., pp. 107–114. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Other Works Consulted
American Academy of Pediatrics (2010). Clinical report: Identification and management of eating disorders in children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 126(6): 1240–1253.
Anderson AE, Yager J (2009). Eating disorders. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 2128–2149. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Coughlin JW, et al. (2014). Behavioral disorders affecting food intake: Eating disorders and other psychiatric conditions. In AC Ross et al., eds., Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, 11th ed., pp. 1319–1329. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
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Sadock BJ, et al. (2007). Eating disorders. In Kaplan and Sadock's Synopsis of Psychiatry, Behavioral Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry, 10th ed., pp. 727–735. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Sadock BJ, Sadock VA (2010). Eating disorders. In Kaplan and Sadock's Pocket Handbook of Clinical Psychiatry, 5th ed., pp. 259–268. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Steering Committee on Practice Guidelines, American Psychiatric Association (2006). Treating Eating Disorders: A Quick Reference Guide. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Yager J, et al. (August 2012). Guideline Watch: Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients With Eating Disorders, 3rd ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association. Also available online: http://psychiatryonline.org/content.aspx?bookid=28§ionid=39113853.
Current as of:
September 23, 2020
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Kathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineJohn Pope MD - PediatricsW. Stewart Agras MD, FRCPC - Psychiatry
Current as of: September 23, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & John Pope MD - Pediatrics & W. Stewart Agras MD, FRCPC - Psychiatry
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
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