Medical Dangers of Eating Disorders

The number-one priority of your child’s treatment team will be to help her reach and maintain medical safety. While the physical complications of anorexia result mostly from self-starvation, those associated with bulimia derive from purging behaviors. The severity of each complication varies from one person to another.

While the following lists are not all-encompassing, they will alert you to many of the problems that your child’s treatment team is trying to prevent.

In fact, more than 8 million people in the United States suffer from eating disorders, and many more have substantially abnormal eating habits that don’t meet the formal criteria for classification as illness. The challenges and fears you may be experiencing in coping with your afflicted child can feel overwhelming. Questions such as “Why us?” or “Why this?” lead you to search for explanations for your child’s behaviors. Most of all, you are probably wondering how she can overcome her abnormal eating habits and how you can encourage her along the way. This book will help answer your questions.


Eating disorders are complex illnesses that most often strike during adolescence or young adulthood and are more common among females than males. Contrary to popular perception, eating disorders are not just a problem of wealthy, white families. They affect the rich and the poor, cutting across all races and ethnicities.

Maybe your child is suffering from anorexia nervosa, the self-starvation disease. Or perhaps she has bulimia nervosa, meaning that she engages in repeated episodes of binge eating followed by efforts to prevent the food she has just ingested from resulting in weight gain. Another possibility is that she is struggling with serious eating problems that border on anorexia or bulimia. If you were to ask a number of people what they first think of when they hear the phrase eating disorder, their answers would likely revolve around food and weight. And these responses would be accuratebut only to a point. Abnormal eating is the tangible part of each illness, the part that gives this group of disorders its name. But it is not the only part. Also important are the intangible components of these illnesses-the individual’s thought patterns and feelings.

Medical Consequences of Anorexia

  • Heart abnormalities (slow heart rate, abnormal heart rhythm)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low body temperature
  • Bone loss, risk of fracture
  • (For teenagers) Slowed growth, delayed sexual development, short stature
  • Loss of menstrual periods
  • Infertility
  • Impaired concentration
  • Anemia
  • Muscle wasting, weakness
  • Long-term constipation
  • Loss of hair from scalp
  • Brittle nails
  • Halitosis (bad breath)
  • Reduction in breast size
  • Sallow skin
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain

Medical Consequences of Bulimia

  • Electrolyte imbalance (low potassium)
  • Dehydration
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Swollen salivary glands
  • Erosion of tooth enamel and cavities
  • Inflammation in the lining of the digestive tract and esophagus
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding (vomiting blood, blood in stools)
  • Seizures
  • Anxiety
  • Mouth sores
  • Heart rhythm disturbance
  • aspiration pneumonia
  • Collapsed lung
  • Chest pain


David B. Herzog, M.D., Debra L. Franko, Ph.D., Pat Cable, RN


David B. Herzog, M.D., is the Harvard Medical School Endowed Professor of psychiatry in the field of eating disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and the director of the Harris Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Debra L. Franko, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Counseling and Applied Educational Psychology at Northeastern University and the associate director of the Harris Center at Massachusetts General Hospital
Pat Cable, RN, is the director of publications at the Harris Center.

Provided by ArmMed Media