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What is Bulimia Face? (Swollen face and cheeks)

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Bulimia nervosa is a serious eating disorder characterized by cycles of binge eating and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, or excessive exercise. Bulimia face refers to the physical changes in the face due to frequent vomiting and purging. This is also called the chipmunk face, chipmunk cheeks, or bulimia cheeks.

what is bulimia face

This disorder has significant physical and psychological impacts on individuals, often driven by distorted body image and self-esteem issues. It is more common in adolescent and young-aged females but can also occur in males. Let’s learn more about what bulimia face is and what you can do about it.

Behavioral Symptoms Of Bulimia Nervosa

Symptoms of bulimia can be diverse, affecting both the mental and physical health of individuals. It is important to consider major signs that can allow for early intervention. These major symptoms include:

  • Binge episodes: Binging is consuming large amounts of foods (typically unhealthy) in one go
  • Purging behaviors: Binging is usually followed by episodes of self-induced vomiting as a means to compensate for unhealthy eating. This may be seen as frequent visits to the bathroom, particularly after meals.
  • Over-use of laxatives: This helps them feel like they’re getting rid of all the food they ate
  • Excessive exercising: Some individuals may resort to spending hours at the gym exercising to reduce weight
  • Low self-esteem: Such individuals can suffer from low self-esteem and be preoccupied with thoughts of body image. 
  • Mental illness: Individuals with an eating disorder may have an underlying mental illness such as depression or anxiety
  • An unhealthy relationship with food: Bulimic individuals often have a lot of guilt associated with eating

Apart from these emotional and behavioral signs, individuals with bulimia can also exhibit some typical physical features.

Bulimia Face and Other Physical Signs Of Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia face refers to the physical changes in the face caused by frequent vomiting and purging. It is also called the chipmunk face, chipmunk cheeks, or bulimia cheeks.

Key characteristics of the ‘bulimia face’ include:

  • Facial swelling: Frequent cycles of eating and purging can cause your body to retain fluid, which can cause swelling, particularly around the cheeks and jawline, which is sometimes described as chipmunk cheeks.
  • Swelling of the salivary glands: frequent purging can cause swelling of the glands that produce saliva. This includes the parotid glands at the sides of the face in front of the ears. This swelling contributes to the appearance of the chipmunk cheeks described above.

Other physical signs of bulimia include:

  • Dental issues: Vomitus contains stomach acid, so repeated exposure can cause dental problems. This includes tooth enamel erosion and increased tooth decay.
  • Scarred knuckles: Using fingers to purge often causes callused knuckles or scarred fingers.
  • Dry skin and brittle hair: Purging behaviors can cause nutritional deficiencies, manifesting as pale and dry skin, hair loss, and brittle nails.
  • Disturbed menstrual cycle: Females can experience irregular periods and hormonal fluctuations due to disturbed body mechanisms.

What Causes Bulimia Nervosa?

Like every other mental illness, the exact cause of bulimia is not entirely understood. However, there seems to be a combination of genetic, psychological, and sociocultural factors. Risk factors of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Family history of bulimia or other eating disorders
  • Family pressure regarding body weight 
  • Society’s preference for a certain body type and toxic diet culture
  • Underlying mental illness such as depression or body dysmorphia

Complications Of The Eating Disorder

Bulimia nervosa, if not treated timely, can have serious complications in the long run. It can affect our body inside out in the following ways:

  1. Physical complications: Frequent vomiting can lead to severe dental issues, including tooth decay, enamel erosion, and acid reflux. The nutritional deficit can also cause skin and hair changes.
  2. Electrolyte imbalances: Purging causes the loss of important electrolytes from the body, such as sodium, potassium, and chloride. This can cause irregular heartbeat, kidney failure, decreased brain function, and other serious health problems.
  3. Gut issues: Such as stomach acid problems and slowed digestion.
  4. Mental health conditions: Bulimia nervosa may lead to the development of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Diagnosis and Early Intervention

Early detection and intervention are crucial and can significantly help control long-term damage. Diagnosis of bulimia involves a thorough evaluation by a healthcare provider, particularly a psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders. Key diagnostic criteria include:

  • Repeated episodes of binge eating and purging.
  • A sense of lack of control over eating behaviors.
  • Physical bulimia symptoms and signs such as frequent vomiting, dental erosion, facial swelling, and enlargement of the salivary glands.

It’s also important to be empathetic and take a detailed history to look for signs of low self-esteem or other mental illnesses. This may influence treatment strategies accordingly.

Family members should look out for warning signs like frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, preoccupation with body image, and evidence of purging behaviors. Noticing any of these should prompt immediate medical attention.

Treatment and Management

Effective treatment for bulimia nervosa requires a team of different specialists and also depends on the extent of the problem. Acute problems such as fainting or life-threatening nutritional deficiencies may warrant a hospital admission. However, in most cases, a multi-disciplinary outpatient program can help significantly.

Treatment options for bulimia nervosa include:

  • Professional treatment: This involves psychotherapy (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy), nutritional counseling, and medication (like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors for underlying depression).
  • Support groups: These groups can be a source of comfort during recovery. They provide emotional support and shared experiences, giving struggling people a sense of belonging.
  • Medical supervision: Some individuals may need medical supervision to monitor and manage the physical effects of bulimia. This can include electrolyte imbalances and gastrointestinal issues.

Long-term effects of bulimia can be severe if left untreated, potentially leading to heart problems, severe dental issues, and other health complications. Thus, along with treating the eating disorder, appropriate referrals should be made to dentists or cardiologists if needed to treat the damage.

Living with Bulimia Nervosa

Living with an eating disorder is not easy, and the journey to recovery can often be long and tedious. Here are some things that can help individuals suffering from bulimia cope with its effects or prevent a relapse if they have recovered: 

  • Seek professional medical advice regularly.
  • Engage in support groups and counseling sessions.
  • Focus on self-esteem-building activities and mental health care.

The good news is that with early and appropriate treatment, many individuals with bulimia nervosa can recover and lead healthy lives. Early diagnosis and medical intervention can help break the cycle of binging and purging, reduce physical manifestations, and improve overall mental and physical health.

There is no denying that bulimia nervosa is a serious eating disorder with significant physical and emotional impacts. Recognizing the signs and symptoms early and seeking comprehensive treatment can significantly improve outcomes. Awareness of conditions like bulimia face and understanding the broader health implications can help in seeking timely and effective care.

About the author
Shannon M
Shannon M's extensive experience in addiction recovery spans several decades. Her journey started at a young age when she attended treatment aftercare sessions for a family member and joined Alateen meetings, a support group for young people affected by a loved one's addiction. In 1994, Shannon personally experienced the challenges of addiction and took the courageous step of joining Alcoholics Anonymous. This experience gave her a unique perspective on the addiction recovery process, which would prove invaluable in her future work. Shannon's passion for helping others navigate the complexities of addiction led her to pursue a degree in English with a minor in Substance Abuse Studies from Texas Tech University. She completed her degree in 1996, equipping her with the knowledge and skills necessary to provide compassionate and effective support to those struggling with addiction.