What are the potential dangers of anorexia if it is left untreated?

Doctor's Answers (1)

Dr Ng Beng Yeong

"Psychiatrist with over 20 years of experience"

Anorexia nervosa, often simply called anorexia, is an eating disorder that causes people to lose an unhealthy amount of weight. It is characterized by a fear of gaining weight even in those who are already underweight or may be dieting and exercising to lose weight. It is an eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight. People with anorexia place a high value on controlling their weight and shape, using extreme efforts that tend to significantly interfere with their lives.

Anorexia is far more common in females. But it can occur in males as well. It is a severe illness that can be life-threatening if not treated

There are a number of potential complications and health risks of anorexia. These medical complications include minor side effects such as fatigue or lack of energy as well as major ongoing health problems or even death. Generally, the health risks of anorexia become more severe as the disorder progresses. Therefore, individuals suffering from anorexia should be treated as soon as possible to reduce the risk for serious long term complications.

The following are some of the less severe or minor health risks of anorexia that are commonly encountered in individuals suffering from this eating disorder.

•    Fatigue and lack of energy

•    Skin problems

•    Dizziness and headaches

•    Dehydration

•    Shortness of breath

•    Cold hands and feet

•    Bloating

•    Constipation

•    Hair loss

•    Stomach pains

•    Decreased metabolic rate

•    Edema (water retention)

•    Growth or Lanugo (fine downy hair)

•    Amenorrhea (loss of periods/menstruation)

•    Low testosterone in males

•    Irregular menses

If a person suffering from an eating disorder becomes extremely malnourished, the medical complications and health risks of anorexia can affect nearly every organ in the body. In severe cases, vital organs such as the brain, heart, and kidneys can sustain damage. This damage may be permanent and irreversible even when the anorexia is under control. There are also some more severe health risks of anorexia that can occur especially if anorexia is left untreated for a longer period of time. Several more severe medical complications for anorexia include:

•    Irregular heartbeats

•    Low blood sugar

•    Loss of bone mass

•    Kidney and liver damage

•    Osteoporosis, increasing the risk of fractures

•    Insomnia

•    Anemia

•    Infertility

•    Depression

•    Electrolyte imbalances

•    Cathartic colon from laxative abuse

•    Low potassium, the most common cause of nocturnal cardiac arrest

•    Cardiac arrest

•    Death

Anorexia can have numerous complications. At its most severe, it can be fatal. Death may occur suddenly — even when someone is not severely underweight. This may result from abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) or an imbalance of electrolytes — minerals such as sodium, potassium and calcium that maintain the balance of fluids in your body.

In addition to the host of physical complications, people with anorexia also commonly have other mental health disorders as well. They may include:

•    Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders

•    Personality disorders

•    Obsessive-compulsive disorders

•    Alcohol and substance misuse

•    Self-injury, suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts

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