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Symptoms, Causes, Related Conditions, Questions & Related Topics

Key Points

  • Vomiting is a common bodily response to rid the body of harmful substances or undigested food, triggered by a variety of factors such as morning sickness, food poisoning, stress, and certain medications.
  • While it can be a symptom of serious health conditions like meningitis and brain tumors, it's more commonly associated with migraines, gastroparesis, gallbladder disease, and COVID-19 among others.
  • The main risk associated with vomiting is dehydration, which can lead to serious health complications if not treated promptly.
  • Treatment for vomiting varies depending on the cause, and may include rest, avoiding solid foods, drinking clear liquids, and IV treatment.
  • If vomiting persists for more than 48 hours or is recurring, seeking medical treatment is crucial.

What is Vomiting?

Vomiting is your body’s natural way of purging itself of a contaminated substance or ridding itself of something it can’t digest. While vomiting is extremely unpleasant, this condition usually resolves itself within 24 to 48 hours, and oftentimes, it’s the best way to rid your body of the contaminated substance. Alternatively, vomiting can also be an early sign of pregnancy.

Top 8 Vomiting Causes

1. Morning Sickness

Morning sickness is the medical term for vomiting that occurs during pregnancy, affecting roughly one-third of all pregnant women. Morning sickness usually begins during the first month of pregnancy and ends between weeks 14 and 16, but some women experience it for the entire gestation period. The exact cause of morning sickness remains unknown, but experts say this type of vomiting may be caused by rapid hormonal changes taking place in the body, such as rising estrogen levels.[1] If you think this may be the reason for your vomiting, it is best to get a pregnancy test sooner rather than later.

2. Food Poisoning

Vomiting is a main symptom of food poisoning and is the body’s way of trying to eliminate a toxic substance. Food poisoning is caused by consuming foods contaminated with viruses, bacteria, parasites, and other toxins. Common factors that lead to food poisoning include eating food prepared by someone who has not washed their hands, using cooking and eating utensils that haven’t been properly cleaned, and eating dairy products that have been left out of the refrigerator.[2]

3. Vertigo

Vertigo, also known as dizziness, can make you feel as though you are moving or spinning, or as though the environment around you is spinning. This sensation can lead to nausea and vomiting. Vertigo may stem from the part of the inner ear that controls balance or from the brain stem or back part of the brain. Other symptoms of vertigo include loud ringing in the ears, hearing loss in one ear, vision impairment, loss of balance, and weakness of the limbs.[3]

4. Motion Sickness

Motion sickness happens when the brain receives conflicting signals from the eyes, inner ear, and sensory receptors, causing feelings of dizziness, cold sweats, nausea, and vomiting. Motion sickness is common and may occur when traveling by car, train, airplane, and boat. This problem can happen to anyone but tends to happen more frequently to children, pregnant women, and people who use certain medications.[4]

5. Medications

Nausea and vomiting are common side effects of many different types of medications. Medications linked to vomiting include antibiotics, aspirin, ibuprofen, antidepressants, and medications used for Parkinson’s disease and chemotherapy.[5]

6. Indigestion

Indigestion is a feeling of burning or discomfort in the upper abdomen caused by overeating, eating too quickly, emotional eating, and high-fat foods. Other factors that may lead to indigestion include smoking, fatigue, chronic stress, and consuming excess amounts of alcohol. Common symptoms of indigestion include bloating, belching, heartburn, gas, nausea, and vomiting.[6]

7. Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning happens when someone drinks a fatal dose of alcohol, such as the amount consumed during rapid binge drinking sessions. Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include mental confusion, inability to be roused from sleep, slowed or irregular breathing, and vomiting.[7]

8. Stress and Anxiety

At times of stress and anxiety, the body produces a higher amount of stress chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol as part of the fight-or-flight response. This survival mechanism can lead to rapid breathing, increased heart rate, and increased physical strength and energy so you can deal with the stressful situation. In some instances, stress and anxiety can interfere with the gastrointestinal tract to cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.[8]

Possible Health Conditions Related to Vomiting

While vomiting is typically not a sign of anything severe, but while unlikely, it can be a symptom of serious illnesses such as meningitis and brain tumors. More common conditions include the following:

1. Migraine

Migraines are severe headaches caused by abnormal brain activity that can be triggered by numerous factors, including loud noises, bright lights, perfumes, cigarette smoke, dairy foods, and foods that contain MSG. Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of migraines.[9]

2. Gastroparesis

Also known as delayed gastric emptying, gastroparesis occurs when the muscles of the stomach wall stop functioning properly and either slow or stop the movement of food from the stomach to the small intestine. This condition commonly affects people with diabetes and those who have had surgery on the stomach, esophagus, or small intestine.[10] Gastroparesis produces symptoms that include heartburn, loss of appetite, bloating, belching, and vomiting.[11]

3. Gallbladder Disease

Gallbladder disease occurs when gallstones block the flow of bile through the bile ducts, causing inflammation and infection of the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas. Gallstones are thought to be caused by eating a diet high in cholesterol and are more common in those who are overweight or obese.[12] Gallstones can produce symptoms that include long-lasting abdominal pain, fever, jaundice, nausea, and vomiting.[13]

4. Viral Gastroenteritis

Also known as the stomach flu, viral gastroenteritis is not actually a type of influenza, but a condition in which viruses, bacteria, and parasites cause inflammation in the lining of the stomach. Viral gastroenteritis is the second most common illness in the United States that spreads by coming into contact with an infected person or with contaminated food or water. Common symptoms of the stomach flu include fever, chills, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.[14]

5. Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a set of symptoms that affect the large intestine and your digestive tract. IBS is common and causes symptoms that include diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, changes in bowel movements, bloating, and abdominal cramping. The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but experts think this condition may be caused by factors including chronic stress, mental health disorders, food intolerances and sensitivities, bacterial infections in the digestive tract, and genetics.[15]

6. Pancreatitis

This condition occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed and causes pain in the upper part of the abdomen that spreads to the back. Pancreatitis is thought to be caused by gallstones, alcohol abuse, parasites, viral infections, and genetics. Common symptoms of pancreatitis include nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and diarrhea.[16]

7. Coronavirus (COVID-19)

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can spread from person to person, and that can cause a range of mild to severe symptoms including fever, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting.[17, 18] Symptoms of COVID-19 usually set in anywhere from 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus. There are currently no FDA-approved medications for the treatment of COVID-19, but exposure to the virus may be minimized by practicing social distancing, washing hands regularly, and wearing a face covering.[18]

Risks Associated With Vomiting

The biggest complication with vomiting is dehydration. Dehydration can lead to serious problems, so it’s important to drink as much fluids as you’re able to keep down, and seek medical treatment to receive intravenous fluids (IV), if required. Signs of dehydration include:

  • Dark or cloudy urine
  • Dry, chapped lips
  • Headaches
  • Less frequent urination
  • Irritability
  • Confusion
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Extreme thirst

Common Treatments for Vomiting

Treatment for vomiting varies depending on why you’re vomiting in the first place. If you recently ate food (within the last 12 hours), you could be vomiting due to food poisoning or some type of food allergy. In this case, it might be beneficial to eat bland crackers, dry toast, or white rice to help settle your stomach. Over-the-counter medications like Pepto-Bismol or Imodium® can also help with vomiting due to food poisoning, as well as for a stomach bug. Treatment for vomiting caused by motion sickness includes medicines classified as H1 blockers, like Dramamine.

Generalized treatment for vomiting regardless of cause includes:

  • Resting and limiting motion
  • Avoiding solid foods
  • Drinking clear liquids
  • IV (intravenous fluids) treatment

If you’re vomiting and diarrhea doesn’t clear after 48 hours or if it is recurring, it’s important to seek medical treatment, as these could be signs that you have an undiagnosed condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Additionally, if you’re experiencing signs of dehydration, it’s important to seek medical help as this can lead to serious conditions and complications if left untreated.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Vomiting

  • When did you start vomiting?
  • What times of the day do you normally vomit?
  • How frequently do you vomit?
  • Do certain foods, smells, or other factors trigger vomiting?
  • Do you experience any other symptoms with vomiting?
  • Does your vomit contain blood or resemble coffee grounds?
  • What color is your vomit?
  • What medications do you take?
  • Did you recently experience a trauma or injury?
  • Do you have any known medical conditions?
  • Have you recently been exposed to anyone with COVID-19?
  • Have you recently attended a large gathering or event?
  • Have you recently been in close contact with anyone outside of your household?

Vomiting May Also Be Known as

  • Puking
  • Throwing up
  • Emesis
  • Barfing

Frequently asked questions

  • What are some common causes of vomiting?

    Some common causes include morning sickness, food poisoning, motion sickness, certain medications, indigestion, alcohol poisoning, and stress and anxiety.
  • Can vomiting be a symptom of a serious health condition?

    Yes, vomiting can be a symptom of serious health conditions like meningitis and brain tumors, but it's more commonly associated with conditions like migraines, gastroparesis, and gallbladder disease.
  • What is the main risk associated with vomiting?

    The primary risk associated with vomiting is dehydration, which can lead to serious health complications if not addressed promptly.
  • How is vomiting typically treated?

    Treatment for vomiting depends on the cause, and can include rest, avoiding solid foods, drinking clear liquids, and IV treatment.
  • When should I seek medical treatment for vomiting?

    If vomiting persists for more than 48 hours or is recurring, it's important to seek medical treatment.
  • Can stress and anxiety cause vomiting?

    Yes, stress and anxiety can trigger vomiting.
  • Can vomiting be a symptom of COVID-19?

    Yes, vomiting can be a symptom of COVID-19.
  • Is vomiting always a sign of a serious illness?

    No, vomiting can be caused by a variety of factors and is not always a sign of a serious illness. However, persistent or recurring vomiting should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.

Solv has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

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