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What is anorexia nervosa?
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 a fat person.
Anorexia usually starts in the teen years. It's much more common in females than males. Early treatment can be very effective. But if not treated early, anorexia can become a lifelong problem. 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. With treatment, a person with anorexia can feel better and stay at a healthy weight.
What causes anorexia?
Eating disorders are complex, and experts don't really know what causes them. But they may be due to a mix of family history, social factors, and personality traits. You may be more likely to have anorexia if:
What are the symptoms?
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:
How is anorexia diagnosed?
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.
How is it treated?
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.
What should you do if you think someone has anorexia?
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:
Frequently Asked Questions
The cause of anorexia nervosa is not fully understood. It is thought to develop from a mix of physical, emotional, and social triggers.
Feelings and actions
Common feelings and actions that are linked to anorexia nervosa include: 1
Some people who have anorexia also make themselves vomit or use laxatives or diuretics to lose weight ( bulimia ). Breakdown of the enamel on the teeth is a common symptom of long-term vomiting.
Common physical signs of malnutrition from anorexia include: 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. Limiting foods then 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 ( bulimia ).
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.
Early treatment works best
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.
What Increases Your Risk
The risk for anorexia nervosa increases if you:
For some people, anorexic eating habits 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:
When To Call a Doctor
Call your doctor immediately if you (or someone you care about) have been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and:
Call your doctor if you (or someone you care about):
Watchful waiting is a wait-and-see approach. Watchful waiting is not a safe way to handle a possible eating disorder.
Getting early treatment improves your chances of overcoming anorexia.
Who to see
The following health professionals can help diagnose or treat an eating disorder:
For severe anorexia, starvation, or life-threatening mental health problems, getting treatment in a hospital or an eating disorder treatment center is needed.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
Exams and Tests
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. It also supports parents in creating a normal eating pattern for their child. Any brothers or sisters also need support during treatment. Family, group, and individual counseling are all effective and are often combined.
If you need more help
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.
When you need emergency care
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.
What to think about
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.
For family members of children and teens
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.
Although not part of the treatment of anorexia, relieving stress can help you recover, improve your quality of life, and stay healthy.
For family members
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.
Other Places To Get Help
Last Revised: August 25, 2011
Agras WS (2008). The eating disorders. In DC Dale, DD Federman, eds., ACP Medicine, section 13, chap. 9. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
Nicholls D, Viner R (2005). Eating disorders and weight problems. BMJ, 330(7497): 950–953.
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