Medical Complications of Eating Disorders

The specifics of how an eating disorder affects a person is based on any number of individual factors, including the types of eating disorders they’re struggling with, their medical history, and any mental health concerns, among others.

Patient and doctor

Further Reading


On top of these qualities, the eating disorder itself can cause additional complications, including malnutrition and the worsening of eating disorder symptoms or other related conditions, like anxiety or depression. Disordered eating behavior of all types, but especially the purging behaviors seen in many common eating disorders, can tax one’s organs and even lead to death if left untreated.

Yet, while eating disorders can cause a variety of medical issues, many of these issues can be effectively treated and reversed with proper care.

Medical issues with eating disorders span the spectrum of physical and mental complications. Additionally, the damage caused by eating disorders like anorexia nervosa (AN), binge eating disorder (BED), and other eating disorders can impact someone differently in the short term and long term.

Short-Term Issues

In the short term, disordered eating is most likely to affect someone’s gastrointestinal health. Issues such as acid reflux, GERD, and even bloating, cramping, and nausea are common, particularly among people with eating disorders that involve purging behavior. [1]

For eating disorders that involve limited food intake, someone may frequently feel faint or dizzy. The lack of proper nutrients could cause hair to thin or fall out, nails to become brittle, and skin to turn dry or flaky. [1]

Developing eating disorders take a toll on both physical and mental health.

Eating disorders frequently also lead to immune function impairment. Wounds that are slow to heal and lingering illnesses are common eating disorder symptoms. [1]

And even developing eating disorders can take a toll on someone’s health. Eating disorders affect, in many cases, someone’s mental health and other behaviors, regardless of how long the person’s disordered eating has gone on. In the short term, this could look like everything from trouble concentrating and significant sleep disruptions to mood swings, excessive exercise, and a fixation on topics like food, body image, and weight gain, or an overwhelming desire to lose weight. [1]

Long-Term Issues

The long-term health consequences associated with disordered eating are often more closely aligned with the specific type of disorder the person is struggling with, but in any case, the potential impact can, unfortunately, be hugely detrimental.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is associated with a severely limited food intake, sometimes to the point of starvation. This often translates to severe malnutrition, which can have a number of far-reaching impacts on someone’s health.

When dealing with limited energy intake, the body will often slow down its metabolism and work to conserve what energy it does have. This can cause a variety of symptoms over time, including: [1]

  • Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure
  • Reduced bone density
  • Muscle loss and weakness
  • Severe dehydration, which can cause kidney failure
  • Issues with fainting and severe fatigue
  • Dry hair and skin, which can often cause hair loss
  • Growth of a downy layer of hair called lanugo, which is a sort of defense mechanism the human body can engage in to try to keep the body warm

Bulimia Nervosa

Perhaps the most major health concern around bulimia nervosa (BN) is the repeated binge-and-purge cycles a person engages in. These can cause potentially dangerous chemical imbalances in the body, as well as physical damage.

More specifically, BN is associated with long-term symptoms such as: [1]

  • Electrolyte imbalances that can cause an irregular heartbeat and potentially fatal heart failure
  • Gastric rupture as a result of binging
  • Inflammation and possible rupture of the esophagus as a result of binging
  • Tooth decay and staining
  • Irregular bowel movements or constipation due to laxative abuse
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Pancreatitis

People who have bulimia nervosa may also experience many of the same symptoms associated with AN, particularly when it comes to those concerning malnutrition.

Binge Eating Disorder

Like people struggling with BN, people with binge eating disorder experience binging episodes, which involve the loss of a sense of control over how much is being eaten. But unlike those with BN, people with BED do not participate in compensatory behavior, which can lead to entirely other types of long-term consequences.

Some common long-term symptoms of BED include: [1, 2]

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Heart disease
  • Type II diabetes
  • Gallbladder disease
Doctor's office

Treating Medical Issues From Eating Disorders

If you or a loved one are experiencing eating disorder symptoms, it’s important to seek help.

For many people, the journey toward recovery starts with therapy. Speaking with a trained professional can help you not only change your unhelpful behaviors but the unhelpful thoughts that may be driving them.

Still, others who are deeper in the throes of their condition may need to start their treatment with a more intensive or regimented program. A stay at an inpatient treatment facility or participation in a partial hospitalization program offers good solutions for people whose behaviors or thoughts are further out of their control or who may need more thorough medical care to address physical symptoms.

Online Treatment

Treatment for eating disorders doesn’t necessarily need to happen in person. Partial hospitalization programs and intensive outpatient programs can be done virtually from wherever you are.

Within Health offers online treatment that allows you to access a team of professionals from the comfort of your home.

Regardless of the level of care someone receives, they are likely to address more than just their disordered eating behavior while in treatment. Often, the therapy involved is designed to help with related issues, such as issues with self-esteem and body image. Co-occurring disorders, such as depression and anxiety, can also be effectively treated in this setting.

Severe Eating Disorder Cases

In some cases, an individual may be experiencing such severe medical complications that they need to go to the hospital, potentially against their will, to be administered the nutrients they need to survive and help their body recover. This is often a medical emergency, and prompt care is needed.

Even once a person has been medically stabilized, there will likely be additional physical symptoms that need to be addressed. For example, cavities that may have developed due to purging will still require dental work to fix. And some types of organ damage can be permanent, although often, a person will be able to at least significantly recover from these incidents, if not heal completely. 

Regardless, in these cases, and in any case, prompt care is crucial to mitigate the long-term damage of eating disorders.

The Importance of Long-Term Care

The behaviors involved in eating disorders may sound extreme, but they’re more common than many people may think.

An estimated 8 million Americans alone struggle with eating disorders. [3] Compounding the issue is the high mortality rate of these conditions, which are frequently considered the most deadly type of mental health disorder. And unfortunately, relapse is also common in this class of illness.

Even if a person is in recovery and no longer in regular outpatient treatment, they can still likely benefit from regular individual therapy or support group sessions. This can be very helpful for catching any backsliding into disordered behavior, allowing the person the opportunity to work on or change aspects of their lifestyle before they fall further into a full-blown relapse. Like other mental health disorders, there is no “cure” for eating disorders. Long-term management often involves regular therapy, self-care, and support from others. But with the right treatment and ongoing support, it is possible to effectively recover from an eating disorder.


  1. Warning Signs and Symptoms. National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved December 4, 2022.
  2. Health Consequences of Eating Disorders. National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved December 4, 2022.
  3. Eating Disorder Statistics. South Carolina Department of Mental Health. Retrieved December 4, 2022.

Last Update | 03 - 2 - 2023

Medical Disclaimer

Any information provided on the is for educational purposes only. The information on this site should not substitute for professional medical advice. Please consult with a medical professional if you are seeking medical advice, a diagnosis or any treatment solutions. is not liable for any issues associated with acting upon any information on this site.