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Anorexia nervosa symptoms

2-minute read

The most obvious sign that someone has anorexia nervosa is that they are severely underweight, they have lost weight very quickly or their weight fluctuates a lot.

A BMI of less than 18.5 is considered to be underweight. But being skinny is not the only sign of anorexia. There are also psychological and behavioural signs that a person may have anorexia nervosa.

Someone with anorexia nervosa may have an intense fear of putting on weight. They have a distorted body image and 'see' themselves as fat, when in reality they are underweight. They are obsessed with their body shape and weight, they often have low self-esteem and they are perfectionists.

Someone with anorexia nervosa will not want to eat and won’t admit to being hungry. However, they may be preoccupied with eating and food.

Behaviour that indicates someone may have anorexia nervosa includes dieting or exercising excessively, repeatedly checking weight or body, and using appetite suppressants, laxatives, enemas or diuretics to lose weight.

They may become very secretive about eating, avoid social events with family and friends, avoid certain foods, or develop obsessive rituals around preparing or eating food.

People with anorexia nervosa enter a state of starvation, which stops their brain from functioning properly. They are at risk of self-harm, substance abuse, suicide attempts, depression and anxiety.

Physical symptoms of the condition include:

  • rapid weight loss or frequent changes in weight
  • brittle hair and nails
  • dry, yellow skin
  • growth of soft, fine hair over the body and face ('lanugo' or 'peach fuzz')
  • changes to the face, such as sunken eyes and pale skin
  • an irregular heartbeat
  • becoming easily cold
  • impaired thinking, including lack of concentration and poor memory
  • fainting or dizziness
  • lethargy
  • disrupted menstrual cycle or complete loss of menstruation
  • decreased libido in men
  • osteoporosis and bone problems that can increase the risk of broken bones

See a doctor if you or someone you know is suspected of having anorexia. A diagnosis of anorexia nervosa can be made by a health professional and is the first step in the journey to recovery.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know might have anorexia nervosa, contact the following organisations for support, information and counselling:

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Last reviewed: June 2019

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