Bulimia, also called bulimia nervosa, is an eating disorder that generally includes bingeing on large amounts of food and purging by vomiting or using laxatives. Bulimia can affect anyone of any age, but adolescent girls, in particular, are most prone. If you notice any of the warning signs of bulimia in your teenager, male or female, it is important to contact their doctor so they can get the help they need. Teen bulimia is a mental health condition and will usually not go away on its own, so do not delay in seeking assistance.
#1 Binge Eating
The behavior that nearly all people with bulimia have in common is that they binge on large amounts of food. Often, the food is what is considered “junk food,” such as ice cream, candy, cake, doughnuts, and so on. It also might be fast food, crackers, or other foods that you typically have in the house. In some cases, it might be healthier foods that are eaten in large quantities.
You might see your teen eating these large amounts of food, but since secrecy is another hallmark of the condition, you might be more likely to see the wrappers and boxes left behind. If you are finding a lot of food wrappers in your teen’s bedroom or hidden in the garbage, that is potentially a sign of teen bulimia.
#2 Vomiting After Meals
A teen who excuses him- or herself right after a meal to use the bathroom might be purging by vomiting. Those with bulimia will often force themselves to vomit in an effort to rid themselves of the calories taken in. When out in public, they might discourage you from going into a public bathroom with them. They also might retreat to the bathroom at school after lunch.
#3 Use of Laxatives
Some with teen bulimia will choose to use laxatives to cause a bowel movement instead of or in addition to vomiting. While occasional constipation happens to everyone, a teen who is using laxatives regularly could have bulimia. One issue with laxative use is that the body can become dependent on them, so your teen might develop constant constipation when not using the laxatives. This can cause stomach pain, excessive gas, and other digestive issues.
#4 Signs of Depression
Many teens with bulimia also suffer from depression. If your formerly outgoing son or daughter is now avoiding friends, dropping off of their sports teams, isolating him- or herself in their bedroom, crying frequently, or showing other signs of depression, a mental health evaluation is warranted. Your teen’s doctor can screen them for depression as well as other mental health conditions, including an eating disorder like teen bulimia.
#5 Poor or Distorted Body Image
Teens with eating disorders usually have a distorted body image. Your teen might look in the mirror and see a severely obese individual looking back at them even if they are a normal weight or slightly overweight. They might avoid going swimming or to the beach so they don’t have to wear a bathing suit, and they might wear heavier clothing than the weather requires.
#6 A Normal Weight or Overweight
While anorexia nervosa, another common eating disorder in teens, tends to cause dramatic weight loss, bulimia usually does not; in fact, it can even cause weight gain. You might think that your teen could not have bulimia if he or she is overweight or of a normal weight, but this is not necessarily the case. Those with this illness can maintain a normal weight or be overweight, so don’t use their body size to assume that they are eating healthfully.
#7 Cuts or Scratches on Hands
Teens with bulimia usually force themselves to throw up after meals, and this can cause abrasions on the hands and knuckles. If you notice scratches and scrapes on their hands, particularly their dominant hand, ask for an explanation. Persistent abrasions on the hands and knuckles without a clear cause are a sign of teen bulimia.
#8 Constant Sore Throat
Frequent vomiting can cause a sore throat and hoarseness. Has your teen’s voice changed in a way that is not consistent with the changes that boys go through after puberty? If your teen often sounds hoarse and has a dry cough, bulimia might be the reason. Smoking and huffing are other reasons why a teen might sound hoarse; physical health reasons for hoarseness include allergies, reflux, and post-nasal drip. If your teen has a sore throat or hoarseness that last longer than a week or two, an evaluation is necessary.
#9 Dental Problems
Vomiting causes enamel erosion, which can lead to a host of dental issues. In fact, your teen’s dentist might be the first professional to suspect bulimia if his or her enamel is worn down more than is typical. Your teen might have hypersensitivity to heat and cold, frequent cavities, or discoloration of the teeth. Decay on the front teeth and on the biting surfaces of the molars can be indicative of frequent vomiting.
#10 Symptoms of Malnutrition
As teen bulimia progresses, your teen won’t be getting the nutrients that he or she needs. You might notice that their hair is dull and breaking off and that their skin looks dry. Soft or brittle fingernails can also be a sign of malnutrition. Your teen might frequently feel cold and they might have a hard time getting over simple colds and other minor illnesses. They might feel very tired, act as though they are always irritable, or suffer from headaches and body aches.
If you suspect that your teen has bulimia, it is important to have them screened as soon as possible by their general physician. He or she can refer them to a mental health professional who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders in adolescents. Eating disorders are complicated to treat and can last for years. They can cause a host of physical and mental health problems, and in severe cases, they can even cause death. Be sure to seek help as soon as possible if you suspect this type of condition.