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Body dysmorphic disorder

Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Body dysmorphic disorder article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

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What is body dysmorphic disorder?

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is characterised by a preoccupation with an imagined defect in one's appearance, or in the case of a slight physical anomaly, the person's concern is markedly excessive. BDD is characterised by time‑consuming behaviours such as mirror gazing, comparing particular features to those of others, excessive camouflaging tactics to hide the defect, skin picking and reassurance seeking.1 Symptoms often begin in adolescence.2

How common is body dysmorphic disorder? (Epidemiology)

It is thought that 0.5% to 0.7% of the population have BDD.1 However, one review found:3

  • BDD in adults in the community was estimated to be 1.9%.

  • In adolescents 2.2%.

  • In student populations 3.3%.

  • In adult psychiatric inpatients 7.4%.

  • In adolescent psychiatric inpatients 7.4%.

  • In adult psychiatric outpatients 5.8%.

  • In general cosmetic surgery 13.2%.

  • In rhinoplasty surgery 20.1%.

  • In orthognathic surgery 11.2%.

  • In orthodontics/cosmetic dentistry settings 5.2%.

  • In dermatology outpatients 11.3%.

  • In cosmetic dermatology outpatients 9.2%.

  • In acne dermatology clinics 11.1%.

  • Women outnumbered men in the majority of settings but not in cosmetic or dermatological settings.

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Differences between body dysmorphic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder45

Although there are many similarities between the two conditions - which often co-exist - some differences have been identified. Patients with BDD have significantly poorer insight than those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and are more likely to be delusional. They are also significantly more likely to have lifetime suicidal ideation, as well as lifetime major depressive disorder and a lifetime substance use disorder. See also the separate Obsessive-compulsive Disorder article.

Low self-esteem is an important hallmark of BDD beyond the influence of depressive symptoms. It appears that negative evaluation in BDD is not limited to appearance but also extends to other domains of self-image.6

The General Practitioner's role1

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends referral to a specialist multidisciplinary team offering age-appropriate care. This is unlikely to be available in many areas, due to lack of resources; however, it is worth getting in touch with local mental health trusts to see what is currently available. The GP's role depends on expertise but it should be remembered that drug management should be part of a package which includes psychological care.

In all patients, however, the GP will need to:

  • Identify cases.

  • For patients at risk of BDD (depression, social phobia, substance misuse, OCD,7 eating disorder, mild disfigurement or blemish) seeking dermatology or cosmetic surgery referral, ask the following questions:

    • Do you worry a lot about the way you look and wish you could think about it less?

    • What specific concerns do you have about your appearance?

    • On a typical day, how many hours a day is your appearance on your mind? (More than one hour a day is considered excessive).

    • What effect does it have on your life?

    • Does it make it hard to do your work or be with friends?

  • Assess severity - ie how much it is affecting the patient's ability to function in everyday life.

  • Assess risk of self-harm or suicide and presence of comorbidity such as depression.

  • Arrange referral to appropriate secondary care provision.

  • Ensure continuity of care to avoid multiple assessments, gaps in service and a smooth transition from child to adult services (many patients have lifelong symptoms).

  • Promote understanding - make patients/families aware of the involuntary nature of symptoms. Consider patient information leaflets, contact numbers of self-help groups, etc.

  • Consider the bigger picture - cultural, social, emotional and mental health needs.

  • If the patient is a parent, consider child protection issues.

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Body dysmorphic disorder treatment and management in adults1 8

The recommended treatments for BDD are cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Both CBT and pharmacotherapy have been shown to be effective for BDD in both adult populations, and for young people.9

Patients with mild functional impairment can be managed with low-intensity psychological treatment. This may involve:

ERP is a technique in which patients are repeatedly exposed to the situation causing them anxiety (eg, exposure to dirt) and are prevented from performing repetitive actions which lessens that anxiety (eg, washing their hands). This method is only used after extensive counselling and discussion with the patient, who knows fully what to expect. After an initial increase in anxiety, the level gradually decreases. This is extremely therapeutic, as the patient feels that they have confronted their worst fears without anything terrible happening.

  • Adults with mild symptoms should be offered a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) if they cannot engage in low-intensity psychological treatment, if such treatment has failed, or if they opt not to have more intensive psychological treatment.

  • Adults with moderate symptoms or where low-intensity psychological treatment has failed should be offered high-intensity CBT and ERP (more than 10 hours per patient) or an SSRI.

  • Adults with severe symptoms - offer high-intensity psychological therapy plus an SSRI.

Body dysmorphic disorder treatment and management in children1

  • Mild dysfunction - offer guided self-help. As for moderate-to-severe if this fails.

  • Moderate-to-severe - offer cognitive behavioural therapy and exposure and response prevention (CBT ERP) as for adults but involve family/carers: individual or group depending on the preference of the patient.

  • If psychological treatment fails, factors which might require other interventions may be involved - eg, co-existence of comorbid conditions, learning disorders, persisting psychosocial risk factors such as family discord, presence of parental mental health problems. In children over the age of 8, adding an SSRI might be appropriate, following multidisciplinary review (but see below concerning safety issues).

Using SSRIs1 10

See separate article Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors and below:

SSRIs in adults
Evidence for use of SSRIs in OCD is stronger than for BDD. It is unclear whether this applies to people with OCD or BDD in absences of other comorbidity; further guidance is awaited.

When prescribing, discuss the following and provide written supporting material:

  • Craving and tolerance do not occur.

  • There is a risk of discontinuation/withdrawal symptoms on stopping the drug, missing doses, or reducing the dose.

  • There is a range of potential side-effects (see individual drugs) including worsening anxiety, suicidal thoughts and self-harm, which need to be carefully monitored, especially in the first few weeks of treatment.

  • There is commonly a delay in onset of up to 12 weeks, although depressive symptoms improve more quickly.

  • In high-risk patients, prescribe limited quantities, keep in contact, especially during the first few weeks, and actively monitor for akathisia (restlessness and the urge to move), suicidal ideation, increased anxiety, and agitation.

  • Monitor all patients around the time of dosage changes.

  • NICE recommends fluoxetine as there is more supporting evidence than for other SSRIs.

  • If there is no response to a standard dose, check compliance, check interaction with drugs and alcohol, then consider titrating to THE maximum dose according to the product characteristics.

  • Continue for at least twelve months; withdraw gradually.

SSRIs in children and young people (8-18 years)

  • For children and young people, SSRIs are only prescribed by specialists, in conjunction with psychological therapy following assessment by a child and adolescent psychiatrist who should also be involved in dosage changes and discontinuation.

  • Fluoxetine is the first-line SSRI for BDD. In the presence of depression, follow NICE guidance for treatment of childhood depression.

  • Discuss adverse effects, dosage, monitoring, etc with the patient/family/carers as per adults (see above).

Treatment failures (applicable to adults, children and young people)1 11

The following should be in conjunction with specialist assessment and multidisciplinary review:

  • Try another SSRI.

  • Change to clomipramine; however, this has a greater tendency to produce adverse effects. Do baseline ECG and check blood pressure; start with a small dose, titrate according to response, and monitor regularly.

  • Antipsychotics - sometimes used to augment the effect of an SSRI.

  • Inpatient treatment - for 'last resort' treatment failures.

  • Residential/supportive care - for patients with chronic severe dysfunction.

  • Patients with BDD do not usually benefit from surgical treatment.12

Further reading and references

  1. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder - core interventions in the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder and body dysmorphic disorder; NICE Clinical Guideline (November 2005)
  2. Bjornsson AS, Didie ER, Phillips KA; Body dysmorphic disorder. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2010;12(2):221-32.
  3. Veale D, Gledhill LJ, Christodoulou P, et al; Body dysmorphic disorder in different settings: A systematic review and estimated weighted prevalence. Body Image. 2016 Sep;18:168-86. doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.07.003. Epub 2016 Aug 4.
  4. Phillips KA, Pinto A, Menard W, et al; Obsessive-compulsive disorder versus body dysmorphic disorder: a comparison study of two possibly related disorders. Depress Anxiety. 2007;24(6):399-409.
  5. Phillips KA, Kaye WH; The relationship of body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders to obsessive-compulsive disorder. CNS Spectr. 2007 May;12(5):347-58.
  6. Kuck N, Cafitz L, Burkner PC, et al; Body dysmorphic disorder and self-esteem: a meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry. 2021 Jun 15;21(1):310. doi: 10.1186/s12888-021-03185-3.
  7. Stewart SE, Stack DE, Wilhelm S; Severe obsessive-compulsive disorder with and without body dysmorphic disorder: clinical correlates and implications. Ann Clin Psychiatry. 2008 Jan-Mar;20(1):33-8.
  8. Hong K, Nezgovorova V, Uzunova G, et al; Pharmacological Treatment of Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2019;17(8):697-702. doi: 10.2174/1570159X16666180426153940.
  9. Krebs G, Fernandez de la Cruz L, Mataix-Cols D; Recent advances in understanding and managing body dysmorphic disorder. Evid Based Ment Health. 2017 Aug;20(3):71-75. doi: 10.1136/eb-2017-102702. Epub 2017 Jul 20.
  10. Depression in children and young people: identification and management; NICE Guidance (June 2019)
  11. Ipser JC, Sander C, Stein DJ; Pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy for body dysmorphic disorder. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Jan 21;(1):CD005332. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD005332.pub2.
  12. Crerand CE, Menard W, Phillips KA; Surgical and minimally invasive cosmetic procedures among persons with body dysmorphic disorder. Ann Plast Surg. 2010 Jul;65(1):11-6.

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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