Are Eating Disorders Contagious?

Contagious disorders refer to communicable diseases that can be passed from one individual to another individual when the exchange of the virus is transmitted, either through sneezing, coughing, or touching. Metaphorically speaking, laughing is contagious however in terms of diseases process, a living virus, parasite, fungus or bacteria are considered contagious in certain circumstances. Eating disorders are mental health disorders that many believe to be “contagious” because they carry a strong influence among communities and peer groups. The term “social contagion” is more fitting for eating disorders and here’s why. Eating disorders are known to spread rampantly on college campuses, especially among sororities, where young females are trying their hardest to fit it and look a certain way. Peer pressure, low self esteem and poor body image are known triggering factors for the development of an eating disorder but simply being around an individual with an eating disorder does not automate development of an eating disorder in another individual. So are eating disorders contagious? No, although there is a strong social influence associated with developing an eating disorder if other risk factors are also present.

Eating disorder risk factors

  • Genetics (especially in first degree relatives)
  • History of trauma (emotional, mental or physical)
  • Poor interpersonal relationships
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor body image
  • Personality disorders (borderline personality disorder)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder

The media as a social trigger for eating disorders

One of the most common triggers for developing an eating disorder or relapsing while in recovery for an eating disorder is the role the media plays in influencing the social norms and concepts associated with body image. Advertisements and pictures play a subtle but very significant role of influencing social norms and concepts of ideal body image. Whether it is television, movies, fashion magazines or social media, these outlets depict beauty as an ultrathin young woman and a tall, muscular man and promote weight reduction, plastic surgery, unhealthy behaviors and supplements to encourage individuals to look a certain way. Studies have shown that females between 5th to 12th grade, 69% reported that images in magazines affected their perception of ideal body image, and 47% reported wanting to lose weight because these images.

Seeking help

Eating disorders can last a lifetime and result in death if not treated by a professional in a timely manner. Although eating disorders are not contagious it is important to still be aware of the strong social influence associated with developing an eating disorder if other risk factors are also present. Depending on the severity of the disorder, inpatient treatment, residential treatment or outpatient treatment is offered. Treatment works to focus on the underlying triggers and developing healthy coping skills to overcome these triggers. Once the underlying triggers and the root of the eating disorder is recognized and treated, nutritional counseling and how to develop a healthy relationship with food can then begin.

We’re Here for You

If you are struggling or someone you know is struggling, we are here for you. Center for Discovery’s Treatment Centers specialize in treatment for eating disorders, mental health and dual diagnosis treatment with unique treatment programs for every individual to get them on their way to eating disorder recovery.

For more information, resources, or to consult with one of our specialists, call 877.586.0089.