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Anorexia Nervosa in Adolescents

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Oct 3, 2022.

What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that can lead to severe weight loss. Anorexia may cause you to stop eating or to eat fewer calories than your body needs. The weight loss is not related to another medical condition.

What increases my risk for anorexia nervosa?

  • Early puberty, which may cause normal but unwanted weight gain
  • A desire to be perfect in everything you do and how you look
  • Participation in sports or activities that require a low weight
  • Constant dieting to lose weight
  • Being female
  • A family history of an eating disorder
  • Trouble accepting how your body looks
  • Pressure from others to be thin
  • A recent loss or separation
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

What are the signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa?

  • Body weight that is much lower than is healthy for your height and age
  • Fear of gaining weight, even if you are very thin
  • Spending much of your time thinking about food and how to lose more weight
  • Restricting food, measuring or weighing everything you eat, or not eating at all
  • Eating large amounts quickly and then purging (vomiting or using laxative) to prevent weight gain
  • Exercising too much to prevent weight gain
  • Feeling tired, dizzy, weak, or cold much of the time
  • Cracked or dry skin, thinning hair, or fine hair covering your body
  • Nails that break easily
  • Mood control problems, such as easily becoming angry, or depression

How is anorexia nervosa diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you and check your height and weight. You may be asked to fill out forms about your eating habits. Your provider may ask how you control your weight. You may have a hard time talking about your weight or about not eating. You may also have trouble asking for help. Your provider may recommend you talk to an eating disorder expert. This might make it easier to talk about anorexia. The following tests can help your healthcare provider understand how anorexia may be affecting your body:

  • Blood tests will show if you are getting enough iron, calcium, and other nutrients.
  • Urine tests may be used to check for signs of dehydration.
  • Bone density pictures may show bone loss that anorexia can cause. Your risk for bone loss is higher if you are female and no longer have a monthly period.

  • An EKG may be used to check your heart's electrical activity. Anorexia can lead to heart rhythm problems.

How is anorexia nervosa treated?

You may feel like it will be hard to get better. You may have a lot of feelings about eating and reaching a healthy body weight. Treatment is meant to help you develop a healthy relationship with food. Treatment may also be needed for health problems caused by anorexia. Treatment may need to take place in a hospital or clinic.

  • Counseling is an important part of treatment. You may work with healthcare providers alone or in a group. Group counseling is a way for you to talk with others who have anorexia. Counseling may center on helping you replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts. Family sessions can help everyone in the family understand anorexia and what to do to help you.
  • Nutrition therapy means you will meet with a dietitian to plan healthy meals. Others in your family may also meet with the dietitian. Your healthcare providers and dietitian will work with you to make small changes over time.
  • Medicines are sometimes used to help treat anorexia or the health problems it causes. You may get medicine to help improve your mood, control mood swings, and decrease obsessive thoughts. Vitamin or mineral supplements may also be needed if your nutrient levels are low because of anorexia.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

What can I do to care for myself?

You might be comparing your weight and size to friends or others in your school. You may also see images in magazines or on TV that make you think you need to have a certain shape. Part of caring for yourself means not comparing yourself to anyone else. Your body can be strong and healthy. As you work through your feelings about yourself and your body, you may start to see your body in a more positive way. The following are some tips to help you as you care for yourself:

  • Be patient. Recovery from anorexia is a process that takes time. You may have times when you go back to not eating, or eating few calories, especially during stressful times. This is common. Work with family members and healthcare providers to get back on track with healthy eating and healthy exercise. Try not to be angry with yourself for the episode. It might help to talk about your feelings with someone you trust.
  • Focus on a healthy self-esteem. Think about everything you like about yourself. For example, you may be a talented artist, or you may write well. Focus on those skills or talents instead of on appearance. Ask others not to comment on your weight or shape. Your healthcare provider can tell you healthy weight ranges for your age and height. It may take time before you are comfortable knowing your weight or seeing your weight as healthy. Remember your goals to build a healthy self-esteem. Be patient with yourself as you change your thinking.

Where can I get support and more information?

  • National Eating Disorders Association
    165 West 46th Street
    New York , NY 10036
    Phone: 1- 212 - 575-6200
    Phone: 1- 800 - 931-2237
    Web Address:
  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Office of Science Policy, Planning, and Communications
    6001 Executive Boulevard, Room 6200, MSC 9663
    Bethesda , MD 20892-9663
    Phone: 1- 301 - 443-4513
    Phone: 1- 866 - 615-6464
    Web Address:

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) for any of the following:

  • You want to harm or kill yourself.
  • You have pain when you swallow, or severe pain in your chest or abdomen.
  • Your heart is beating fast or fluttering, or you feel dizzy or faint.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your muscles feel weak, and you have pain and stiffness.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have tingling in your hands or feet.
  • Your monthly period is light or has stopped completely (females).
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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