Vomiting is an uncontrollable reflex that expels the contents of the stomach through the mouth. It is also called being sick, or throwing up. Nausea is the term used to describe the feeling that you might vomit, but are not actually vomiting.
Both symptoms are very common and can be caused by a wide range of factors. They occur in both children and adults, although they are probably most common in pregnant women and patients undergoing cancer treatments.
Nausea and vomiting may occur together or separately. They can be caused by a number of physical and psychological conditions.
The most common causes of nausea are intense pain—usually from an injury or illness—and the first trimester of pregnancy. There are also a number of other possible causes including motion sickness, emotional stress, indigestion, food poisoning, viruses, and exposure to chemical toxins. If you suffer from gallbladder disease, you are also likely to feel nauseous.
You may find that certain smells bring on the feeling of nausea. This is a very common symptom during the first trimester of pregnancy, although it can also occur in people who are not pregnant. Nausea that is pregnancy-induced usually goes away by the second or third trimester.
Vomiting in Children
The most common causes of vomiting in children are viral infections and food poisoning. However, vomiting can also be caused by severe motion sickness, coughing, high fevers, and overeating.
In very young infants, blocked intestines can also cause persistent vomiting. The intestines may be blocked by a hernia, gallstones, or tumors. This is rare, but should be investigated.
Vomiting in Adults
Most adults rarely vomit. When it does occur, vomiting is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection or a type of food poisoning. In some cases, vomiting can also be caused by other illnesses, especially if they lead to a headache or high fever.
Chronic Stomach Conditions
Chronic (long-term) stomach conditions can often cause nausea and vomiting, along with other symptoms, such as diarrhoea, constipation, and stomach pain. These chronic conditions include food intolerances, such as gluten intolerance (Celiac disease), dairy protein and lactose intolerance.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common stomach condition that causes bloating, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, fatigue, and cramping. It is caused by parts of the gut becoming overactive, and is usually diagnosed by identifying symptoms and ruling out other stomach and bowel conditions.
Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that commonly affects the intestines, though it can occur anywhere in the digestive tract. Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks its own healthy gut tissue, causing inflammation, nausea, vomiting, and pain. It is usually diagnosed using a colonoscopy, a procedure where the colon is explored using a small camera. A stool sample may also be required.
Certain lifestyle choices can increase your chances of experiencing nausea and vomiting. Consuming a large amount of alcohol can cause damage to the lining of the gut or react with stomach acid. Both of these will cause nausea and vomiting. In some cases, excessive alcohol consumption can also cause bleeding in the digestive tract.
An eating disorder—where a person adjusts their eating habits and behaviours based on an abnormal body image—can also cause nausea and vomiting. Bulimia is a condition in which vomiting is induced deliberately to purge the stomach of any food that has been consumed. Anorexia nervosa sufferers may also feel nausea due to starvation and an excess of stomach acid.
Though rare, vomiting can sometimes occur as a symptom of a more serious condition. This includes meningitis, appendicitis, a concussion, a brain tumor, and migraine headaches. Persistent vomiting should always be investigated by a doctor.
If you suffer from nausea or vomiting for more than a week, you should seek medical care. Most cases of vomiting clear up within six to 24 hours after the first attack.
Under 6 Years Old
Emergency care should be sought for any child under 6 years old who:
- has both vomiting and diarrhea
- is showing symptoms of dehydration, including wrinkled skin, irritability, a weak pulse, or reduced consciousness
- has been vomiting for more than two or three hours
- has a fever of above 100 degrees F
- has not urinated in more than six hours
Over 6 Years Old
Children over six years old should receive emergency medical care if:
- vomiting has lasted for more than 24 hours
- there are symptoms of dehydration
- the child has not urinated in more than six hours
- the child has a fever higher than 102 degrees F
Adults should seek emergency medical care if they have any of the following symptoms:
- a severe headache
- a stiff neck
- blood in the vomit
- a rapid pulse
- rapid breathing
- a fever of over 101 degrees F
- decreased responsiveness
- both diarrhea and vomiting
- severe abdominal pain
There are a number of ways to relieve nausea and vomiting, both at home and by using medications from the doctor.
Self-Treatment for Nausea
- consume only light, plain foods, such as bread and crackers
- avoid any foods that have strong flavors, are very sweet, or are greasy or fried
- drink cold liquids
- avoid any activity after eating
- have smaller, more frequent meals
Self-Treatment for Vomiting
- drink a large amount of clear fluids to remain hydrated
- avoid solid foods of any kind until vomiting has stopped
- avoid using medications that may upset the stomach, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, and blood thinners
- use an oral rehydrating solution to replace lost electrolytes
Before prescribing medication, you doctor will ask questions about when the nausea and vomiting began and when it is at its worst. You may be asked about your eating habits and whether anything makes the vomiting and nausea better or worse.
There are a number of prescription medications that can be used to control nausea and vomiting, including medications than can be taken during pregnancy. These include dolasetron (Anzemet), granesitron (Granisol), and trimethobenzamide (Tigan).
Most nausea and vomiting will clear up on its own, unless it is caused by an underlying chronic condition. However, persistent vomiting can cause dehydration and malnutrition. You may also find that your hair and nails become weak and brittle, and that constant vomiting has decayed your tooth enamel.
You can avoid nausea by eating smaller meals throughout the day, eating slowly, and resting after eating. Some people find that avoiding certain food groups and spicy foods prevents nausea.
If you do start to feel nauseous, eat plain crackers before getting up, and try to consume a high protein food, such as cheese or lean meat, before you go to sleep.
If you are vomiting, try to drink small amounts of a sugary liquid, such as a soda or fruit juice, or drink ginger ale or eat ginger to help settle your stomach. Avoid acidic juices, such as orange juice, because this may upset your stomach further.
For motion sickness, over-the-counter medications, such as meclizine (Bonine), can lessen the effects. Limit snacks during car rides and encourage anyone prone to motion sickness to look straight out of a front window.
Written by: Kati Blake
Published on Jul 30, 2012
Updated on Feb 15, 2013
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD