Purging disorder is an eating disorder similar to bulimia nervosa. People with purging disorder purge their food, often by vomiting or using laxatives.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) classifies purging disorder as an “other specified feeding and eating disorder.” Therefore, it remains lesser known than anorexia nervosa and bulimia, so people may go longer without a diagnosis.

However, purging disorder still carries significant health risks and can be potentially life threatening. It is important for a person or loved one with the condition to seek treatment to prevent serious complications.

Read on to learn more about purging disorder.

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Purging disorder involves episodes of purging, or attempts to eliminate food, to control weight.

A person may vomit after meals, use laxatives, exercise excessively, or follow other strategies.

Eating disorders are relatively common. They affect about 1 in 8 people by the age of 20 years.

Purging disorder is less common, affecting 2.5–4.8% of adolescent females.

The primary symptom of purging disorder is purging to control the calories the body absorbs from food.

A person may also be anxious about their appearance, fixated on controlling weight, and secretive about their purging habits.

Some external signs of purging disorder that loved ones may notice include:

  • seeming sick, weak, or tired
  • teeth damage
  • frequent vomiting episodes
  • frequent use or purchasing of laxatives
  • periods of excessive exercise
  • disappearing after meals

The signs and symptoms of purging disorder and bulimia are very similar. Outside observers may notice virtually identical signs, such as tooth damage, a fixation on weight and appearance, and low self-esteem.

The key difference is that bulimia also includes binge eating. Binge eating involves episodes of eating large quantities of food. In bulimia, purging follows a binge eating episode.

The risk factors for purging disorder are similar to other eating disorders. Several factors often interact to increase a person’s risk, including:

  • Family history: Having a close relative with an eating disorder can increase the risk. Genes may also play a role: Studies of twins show that when one twin has an eating disorder, the other twin develops disordered eating in 50% of cases.
  • Mental health: Mental health conditions such as anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder can elevate the risk of developing an eating disorder.
  • Abuse and trauma: Early childhood trauma can also raise the risk.
  • Weight stigma: Pressure to look a certain way, whether from family, media, or society, can encourage disordered eating habits, which may lead a person to develop an eating disorder.

Additionally, a 2019 review of studies notes certain factors may correlate specifically with the development of purging disorder. They include:

  • nausea and stomachache after eating
  • body dissatisfaction
  • a history of frequent dieting

The complications of purging disorder are similar to those of bulimia. They include:

  • dehydration
  • electrolyte imbalances
  • heart arrhythmias, which are irregular heart rhythms
  • constipation
  • damage to the teeth or esophagus

Without treatment, chronic purging can cause life threatening complications, including damage to the heart and other organs.

Treatment focuses on managing the underlying mental health reasons that led to purging disorder.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a group of antidepressants, may be especially helpful.

A person may also need treatment for complications of purging. This might include:

In some cases, a person may need inpatient care or hospitalization to treat severe complications.

Managing eating disorders may be challenging, but purging disorder is treatable.

A 2019 review notes a small study suggests one-third of people recovered from purging disorder at 1 year or more follow-up. The mean length of treatment was 4 months.

Recovery from an eating disorder can take time and a multipronged approach, such as mental health care, primary care, and support from loved ones.

If a person experiences significant complications from purging disorder, ongoing medical care can help. For example, a person may need dental enamel treatment or dental implants.

The National Eating Disorders Association Helpline offers phone, chat, and email support to connect people with local resources and treatment.

People experiencing a crisis or mental health emergency can dial 988 to contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. The Lifeline can connect people to emergency care, local resources, support groups, and more.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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Purging disorder is an eating disorder that can damage many body systems, including the teeth, heart, and gastrointestinal tract.

Purging disorder and other eating disorders are treatable. Recovery is possible with the right support.