What causes bulimia blood in vomit?
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized most commonly by the purging behavior of self-induced vomiting, which usually occurs after an episode of binge eating. Repeated and recurring episodes of forced vomiting can be extremely harsh on the body, particularly the esophagus and the throat.1
The esophagus is the tube of muscle that connects the mouth to the stomach. The blood vessels in the esophagus are thinner than those in other parts of the body, so they are more prone to rupturing through excessive pressure.
Regularly, forcing large amounts of food back up the esophagus increases the pressure on the blood vessels, causing them to swell and rupture, resulting in bleeding. This is what leads to the appearance of bright red blood in vomit, and it is known as esophageal varices or swollen veins.1
Repeated episodes of forceful and frequent vomiting can also cause tears in the lining of your esophagus, known as Mallory-Weiss syndrome. This, too, results in bleeding, which can be severe and life-threatening.2
The symptoms of Mallory-Weiss syndrome are similar to those of esophageal varices, with the addition of diarrhea and vomit that is bright red or looks like coffee grounds.3
When to seek medical treatment for bleeding
If you or someone you know has experienced blood in their vomit after a purging episode, it's important to seek immediate medical treatment.
Esophageal varices or Mallory-Weiss syndrome should never be taken lightly. Even just a small amount of blood in your vomit could be an indicator of a more serious bleed within the esophagus or other part of the gastrointestinal system, which will need to be controlled as soon as possible to prevent further complications.
In these rare cases of severe internal bleeding, you may experience a drop in blood pressure, a rapid pulse, difficulty producing urine, and even shock.2
How long before bulimia damages the esophagus?
It's hard to say how long it takes for self-induced vomiting to cause damage to the esophagus. The severity of symptoms and time of onset depends largely on the sensitivity of the individual, as opposed to the duration or severity of their purging behavior.6
What's certain is that repeated vomiting can introduce stomach acid to the esophageal lining, leading to a hoarse voice, heartburn, thick mucous over the larynx, and, in severe cases, esophageal ruptures. Other complications such as achalasia, where the muscles of the lower esophagus are unable to relax, and esophageal spasms are also possible, though these, too, have been found to occur independent from the duration or severity of someone's compensatory behavior.6
Treating damage to the esophagus and throat caused by bulimia
Once you've had one episode of bleeding while purging, your risk of more bleeding greatly increases.4 If you have bulimia nervosa and don't give your body enough time to heal or treat the esophageal varices effectively, you're likely to experience recurrent bleeding.1
To address acute damage to the esophagus and bleeding, doctors will typically use a combination of medications and treatments, including:4
- Beta-blockers, a type of medication that reduces blood pressure
- Endoscopic band ligation, which is a procedure that uses elastic bands to restrict bleeding veins
- Medications to slow the blood flow to the veins of the esophagus
- Applying pressure to the bleeding veins, for example, with an inflated balloon in the esophagus, known as a balloon tamponade
- Blood transfusions and administration of clotting factors to restore blood volume and stop the bleeding.
The best way to treat and prevent esophageal varices and Mallory-Wiess syndrome is to address the underlying cause, which in this case is bulimia nervosa
Early treatment and intervention in cases of bulimia nervosa can prevent further damage resulting from esophageal bleeding and other complications of the eating disorder. Additionally, professional help from a multidisciplinary team will help a person to heal mentally and medically.
Help for bulimia nervosa
We know it can be uncomfortable to seek help for your bulimia and that binging and purging behaviors are often accompanied by feelings of shame and embarrassment. There is no shame in having bulimia. Many other people have been in the same position as you, and they have been successfully treated for their eating disorders. Taking that first step, by asking for help, is very important and takes courage.
Treatment for bulimia is multifaceted and depends on the behaviors involved and the underlying causes of the disorder. However, intervention typically involves the combination of psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and, in some cases, antidepressants to treat co-occurring psychological disorders.5
If more structure and supervision is needed to engage in the treatment, inpatient or residential treatment may be required to provide you with round-the-clock support and care.
Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), will help you discover the underlying causes for your disordered thoughts and eating behaviors whilst also working towards changing these habits for healthier coping strategies.
Other therapies provided may include interpersonal therapy, group therapy, and family therapy, which teaches loved ones and family members about bulimia and how best to support someone during treatment.