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What is vomiting?

Vomiting, or throwing up, is a forceful discharge of stomach contents. It can be a one-time event linked to something that doesn’t settle right in the stomach. Recurrent vomiting may be cause by underlying medical conditions. Frequent vomiting may also lead to dehydration, which can be deadly if left untreated.

Causes of vomiting

Vomiting is common. Eating too much food or drinking too much alcohol can make a person throw up. This generally isn’t a cause for concern. Vomiting itself is not a condition. It’s a symptom of other conditions. Some of these conditions include:

  • food poisoning
  • indigestion
  • infections (associated with bacterial and viral illnesses)
  • motion sickness
  • pregnancy-related morning sickness
  • headaches
  • prescription medications
  • anesthesia
  • chemotherapy
  • Crohn’s disease

Frequent vomiting not related to any of these causes may be a symptom of cyclic vomiting syndrome. This condition is characterized by vomiting for up to 10 days. It is usually coupled with nausea and extreme lack of energy. It mainly occurs during childhood.

This condition usually affects children around age 5 according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). It occurs in approximately three out of every 100,000 children according to a 2012 study.

This condition can cause vomiting episodes several times throughout the year when left untreated. It can also have serious complications that include:

  • dehydration
  • tooth decay
  • esophagitis
  • a tear in the esophagus

Vomiting emergencies

Vomiting is a common symptom but it can sometimes warrant emergency medical attention. You should go to the doctor immediately if a person:

  • vomits for more than one day
  • suspects food poisoning
  • has a severe headache accompanied by a stiff neck
  • has severe abdominal pain

Blood in the vomit is another reason to call emergency services. Vomiting blood is also known as hematemesis. Hematemesis refers to a situation in which a patient:

  • vomits large amounts of red blood
  • spits up dark blood
  • coughs up a substance that looks like coffee grounds

Vomiting blood is often caused by ulcers, ruptured blood vessels, and stomach bleeding. It can also be caused by some forms of cancer. This condition is often accompanied by dizziness. A person who vomits blood should call a doctor immediately or go to the nearest emergency department.

Complications of vomiting

Dehydration is the most common complication related to vomiting. Vomiting causes your stomach to expel not only food but fluids, too. Dehydration can cause:

  • dry mouth
  • fatigue
  • dark urine
  • decreased urination
  • headache
  • confusion

This complication is especially serious in infants and young children who vomit. This is because younger children have smaller body mass and thus have less fluid to sustain themselves. Parents whose children show symptoms of dehydration should talk to a pediatrician immediately.

Malnutrition is another complication of vomiting. Failure to keep down solid foods causes the body to lose nutrients. People experiencing excessive fatigue and weakness related to frequent vomiting should also seek medical attention.

Vomiting treatments

Treatment for vomiting addresses the underlying cause. Treatment is not necessary for throwing up once in a while. But hydration is important even if a patient vomits only once. Drinking clear liquids is recommended. Clear liquids containing electrolytes can help provide essential nutrients lost through vomiting.

Solid foods can irritate a sensitive stomach, increasing the chances of throwing up. So, it may be beneficial to avoid solid foods until clear liquids are tolerated.

Your doctor might prescribe antiemetic drugs for frequent vomiting. These medications help to reduce episodes of throwing up.

Alternative remedies like ingesting products that contain ginger, bergamot, and lemongrass oil may also help. But use of alternative remedies should be authorized by your healthcare provider because they may cause drug interactions.

Dietary changes can also help recurrent vomiting. These are especially helpful for morning sickness. Foods that help to alleviate vomiting include:

  • nongreasy foods
  • saltine crackers
  • ginger products like ginger ale

You can also try eating smaller meals throughout the day.

Preventing vomiting

Treatment plans are the best course of action for related medical conditions. Vomiting triggers can vary between patients. These may include:

  • excessive alcohol consumption
  • eating too much food
  • migraines
  • exercising after eating
  • stress
  • hot or spicy foods
  • lack of sleep

Adopting better lifestyle habits can help prevent vomiting episodes. It’s difficult to entirely avoid viruses that cause vomiting, but you can reduce your chances of getting a virus by exercising good hygiene, like regular hand washing. Knowing how to treat recurrent vomiting can help you avoid further complications.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Kristeen Cherney
Medically reviewed on: Dec 02, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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