Purging as an Eating Disorder Behavior

Mother talking to daughter
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Purging behaviors are usually seen in teens who are suffering from bulimia, an eating disorder with a pattern of overeating, also called binge-eating, followed by ridding the body of the food just eaten.

However, purging can be present in teens who eat normal amounts of food, or those with anorexia nervosa. If you suspect your teen has an eating disorder, it's important to seek professional help right away as the consequences can be very serious.

Purging by Vomiting

The most common type of purging is self-induced vomiting. Various objects and methods that trigger the gag reflex are used to purge.

Purging behavior is commonly done in secret. Feelings of guilt or shame are often experienced after purging.

A teen who purges may go to the restroom immediately after eating so she can vomit. Vomiting is an attempt to get rid of the foods that may cause her to gain weight.

Other Forms

Other purging methods include the misuse of laxatives, enemas, caffeine or diuretics to move food and liquids quickly through the body. Some methods tried by teens are ineffective or only partially effective in terms of removing calories and have potentially dangerous side-effects.

Troubled teens involved in purging may search online for tips to make purging easier such as how to do it, what foods are most easily regurgitated and ways to cover up this behavior.

Side Effects

The physical and emotional side effects of repeated purging include:

  • Dehydration
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Low blood pressure
  • Kidney damage (rare)
  • Depression
  • Feeling powerless
  • Fatigue
  • Depletion of minerals
  • Abdominal pain
  • Erosion of the teeth
  • Damage to the esophagus

Is Your Teen at Risk?

If your teen is frequently isolating themselves soon after eating, or unable or unwilling to eat socially, there is cause for alarm. Further, research shows self-injurious behavior or a suicide attempt is linked to purging behavior.

If your child is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A 2013 study explains that in the absence of binge eating, behaviors such as self-induced vomiting or misusing laxatives and other medications "to influence weight or shape" are characteristics of purging.

Some triggers for purging behavior also found in study results includes personality shifts such as increased negative affect, or extreme changes in negative emotions or lowered self-esteem before a purging episode followed by an increase in positive affect following purging.

Talk to your teen about body image, weight concerns, and other triggers that may be associated with purging. By keeping an open dialogue you may be able to gauge when changes occur and take steps to prevent this harmful behavior.

And although teen girls are more likely to engage in purging, boys aren't immune to eating disorders. So don't assume a teenage boy wouldn't force himself to vomit or use laxatives to lose weight.

When to Seek Professional Help

If you think your teen may be purging, talk to the doctor right away. A doctor will likely want to examine your teen's physical health and may make a referral to a mental health professional.

Mental health treatment can help your teen develop a healthier body image and engage in healthier habits. It's likely your teen may not want to get help, especially at first. If your teen refuses counseling, talk to a counselor yourself.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Forney KJ, Buchman-Schmitt JM, Keel PK, Frank GK. The medical complications associated with purgingInt J Eat Disord. 2016;49(3):249-259. doi:10.1002/eat.22504

  3. Blythin SP, Nicholson HL, Macintyre VG, Dickson JM, Fox JR, Taylor PJ. Experiences of shame and guilt in anorexia and bulimia nervosa: A systematic review. Psychol Psychother. 2020;93(1):134-159. doi:10.1111/papt.12198

  4. Smith KE, Crowther JH, Lavender JM. A review of purging disorder through meta-analysisJ Abnorm Psychol. 2017;126(5):565-592. doi:10.1037/abn0000243

  5. Kostro K, Lerman JB, Attia E. The current status of suicide and self-injury in eating disorders: a narrative reviewJ Eat Disord. 2014;2:19. doi:10.1186/s40337-014-0019-x

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  7. Haedt-Matt AA, Keel PK. Affect regulation and purging: An ecological momentary assessment study in purging disorder. J Abnorm Psychol. 2015;124(2):399-411. doi:10.1037/a0038815

By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.