Vomiting is a natural reflex that causes stomach contents to be expelled through the mouth. For the most part, vomiting is an adverse reaction to ingesting spoiled food, irritating, allergenic or otherwise harmful substances. It generally represents a protective mechanism that allows for food that is unfit for consumption to be eliminated so it doesn’t make you sick. At the same time, vomiting can be a symptom of various underlying medical conditions ranging from gastritis, appendicitis, hepatitis, hypoglycemia, concussion, stomach virus or stomach bug and all the way to stomach cancer and brain tumors. The treatment for vomiting relies on antiemetic medication, rehydration therapy, natural remedies for nausea, rest and treating the underlying cause.
Diagnosis is made based on other symptoms occurring simultaneously with vomiting, such as fever or chills, or both, cold skin, diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, back pain etc. A brief medical history to identify the potential causes and specific tests ordered by your doctor can further help the diagnosis along. Dehydration represents the greatest risk posed by vomiting and is especially dangerous for anyone with an existing chronic condition, the elderly or children.
Vomiting in children can be severe and comes with the risk of severe dehydration and subsequent complications as well as as the risk of aspirating vomit into the lungs, similar to food aspiration in the lungs. If your child is experiencing frequent vomiting with fever, chills, diarrhea, weakness, cannot keep fluids or food down and is unresponsive, take them to the hospital as soon as possible. The sooner the cause is addressed, the better the outcome.
How does vomiting work?
Vomiting occurs when the nervous system, vestibular system that synchronizes movement and balance or vagus nerve stimulate the stomach muscles, thoracic diaphragm and other respiratory muscles to contract involuntarily. The force of the muscle spasms agitates stomach contents and causes the ring of muscles at the junction of the stomach and esophagus to relax, allowing for the release of stomach contents. The pressure of the muscle contractions then projects stomach contents into the esophagus and mouth, essentially causing vomiting. There is a whole lot of work that goes into preparing for vomiting, including increased salivation to prevent tooth erosion, mucus production to limit damage to the esophagus and mouth mucous membranes and a preparatory breath to prevent vomit aspiration in lungs.
What causes a person to vomit?
1) Pregnancy. Vomiting in pregnancy is called hyperemesis gravidarum and can be mild to severe. Causes are unknown, but a combination of factors, including hormonal changes and heredity are suspected.
2) Motion sickness. All the different forms of motion sickness, including car sickness, sea sickness, airsickness, sickness from spinning or visually induced motion sickness (from watching video without image stabilizer or virtual reality motion sickness) can cause vomiting in predisposed individuals. Children with car sickness may overcome the condition by the time they become adults.
3) Labyrinthitis. Labyrinthitis is an inner ear inflammation that causes dizziness, tinnitus, loss of hearing, unsteadiness, loss of balance when walking and falling, nausea and vomiting.
4) Stomach virus and stomach bug. Viral or bacterial gastroenteritis is the most common cause of vomiting in both children and adults. It is often accompanied by diarrhea, lack of appetite, fever and other symptoms. It is common to get vomiting then fever soon after when you have a stomach virus or stomach bug. Vomiting continuously, without control over the course of several days is a sign of a severe gastroenteritis and requires medical attention. Read more about gastroenteritis.
5) Food poisoning. Eating spoiled food or food that is not fresh can easily cause vomiting. Spoiled fruits and vegetables can cause the most severe vomiting, but improperly stored fish and meat in general as well as pickled foods are also risk factors. Cold skin, cold sweats and cold hands and feet, dizziness and mouth watering may occur right before vomiting.
6) Influenza, or the flu. Lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting, cough, fever, chills and fainting are symptoms of the flu, but can occur in gastroenteritis as well (although the latter will cause diarrhea as well). Read more about influenza causes, types, symptoms and treatment.
7) Acid reflux. Vomiting, cough and heavy breathing can be signs of severe acid reflux. In people with asthma, acid reflux can cause an asthma episode. Because vomiting is acidic and can severely damage the esophagus lining, it is important to treat the underlying condition (GERD, gastroesophageal reflux disease) to prevent Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer in the future.
8) Indigestion. When you have a severe indigestion, vomiting can be preceded by mouth watering, cold skin, cold sweats and chills or cold hands and feet. Body temperature usually returns to normal in a few minutes after you vomit and you feel better. However, if a second bout of vomiting is to occur, you may experience the same symptoms that grow in intensity as the need to vomit approaches.
9) Food allergies or intolerance. When you have a severe food allergy, vomiting may occur and precede anaphylactic shock. Food intolerance, which refers to eating a type of food that you cannot digest properly, can cause digestive upset (diarrhea, constipation, cramps, irritable bowel), nausea, vomiting, cold sweats, headache, cough, nasal congestion and difficulty breathing. Symptoms of food intolerance can build up to anaphylactic shock as well. Seek medical help immediately.
10) Digestive disorders. Vomiting can occur in gastritis, ulcers, appendicitis, peritonitis, cholecystitis (gallbladder inflammation), hepatitis, pancreas inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and other digestive disorders and can be brought on by pain, obstruction or ingestion of problematic foods (example: fatty foods, fried foods, acidic foods, alcohol).
11) Overeating and bulimia. Eating too much, especially greasy, fatty or fried foods that are heavy on the stomach can lead to vomiting. Drinking too many fluids at once, water, juices or alcohol, can cause vomiting. Bulimia is a mental disorder characterized by overeating following by deliberate vomiting to maintain a certain weight or lose weight.
12) Food deprivation. If you don’t eat for prolonged periods of time, your stomach will produce more saliva to tell you it’s ready to receive food. Ingesting it can lead to vomiting.
13) Migraines. It is not uncommon for people who suffer from migraines to experience dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Although the two are known to occur together, if you experience strong headaches (a migraine) with nausea and vomiting, see a doctor as soon as possible.
14) Bad smells. A lot of people are extremely sensitive to unpleasant or strong smells and can experience nausea and vomiting as a result. Usually, distancing themselves from the odor source is enough to stop the progression of the nausea to vomiting.
15) Medicines. Medication such as chemotherapy, anesthetics, certain medicines used for treating depression and anxiety, insulin and other diabetes medication, antibiotics or anti-inflammatory medication can cause nausea and vomiting. Anti-inflammatory medication can cause nausea and vomiting in those with gastritis.
16) Pain. Sometimes, pain can be so strong that it produces symptoms we would not normally associated with it. Some of the most unusual symptoms accompanying strong pain include cold sweats, chills, feeling feverish, nausea and vomiting.
17) Injury and shock, especially to the head. Any form of injury that creates a shock can result in nausea and vomiting. A head injury, a concussion can present with symptoms such as difficulty thinking and focusing, brain fog, visual disturbances, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Cerebral bleeding from a brain aneurysm, ischemic stroke or brain tumors can also cause nausea and vomiting.
18) Low blood sugar and high blood sugar levels. Hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia can both lead to nausea and vomiting, usually as a result of a compensatory reactions to the lack of glucose, improper use or excess blood glucose levels.
19) Nasal congestion. When you have a respiratory infection, your body produces mucus to help trap bacteria or viruses and eliminate them once the immune system has dealt with them. Often time, because of nasal congestion, you end up ingesting mucus. And since it can be quite thick when you’re sick, it can cause vomiting.
Different vomit colors and what they mean
1) Clear, foamy or white vomit. Is usually harmless and occurs when the stomach is empty, you haven’t eaten anything for some time or drank very little water. A slight foam may indicate presence of mucus and saliva.
2) Yellow and green vomit. Both yellow and green vomit colors come from bile juices. Occasionally, eating green foods like spinach or asparagus or yellow foods like yellow carrots or yellow bell peppers.
3) Pink vomit. It often comes from bleeding gums or a mouth ulcer and usually appears in streaks of pink in vomit. Pink streaks indicate a fresh, close-by, minor source of bleeding.
4) Red vomit. Indicates an active bleeding in the esophagus, stomach or other areas. It requires medical attention as soon as possible to identify and stop the bleeding and treat the underlying cause.
5) Brown vomit, black vomit. Both colors indicate older blood coming from the stomach or somewhere further in the gastrointestinal tract. It represents reason for concern because it can be caused by a bleeding ulcer or cancer.
6) Vomit like coffee grounds. Is a sign of coagulated blood and a reason for concern. See a doctor as soon as possible.
When should you go to the doctor for vomiting?
Vomiting in itself is a protective mechanism meant to expel potentially harmful food and other substances. The purpose is to prevent them from being absorbed at the intestinal level and reach the bloodstream. However, while just a symptom itself, vomiting represents reason for concern when it continues for more than 1-2 days (24-48 hours) or if it is too severe (example: you throw up every hour or every two hours). Seek medical help if you can’t keep any fluids down for 24 hours, experience weakness, confusion, shortness of breath, worsening of other symptoms (depending on what the cause of your vomiting is), return of your fever, drop in blood pressure or tachycardia, palpitations, rash or chest pain or abdominal pain.
1) Dehydration. Vomiting (and diarrhea) can cause severe dehydration which can be life-threatening. If you experience confusion, breathing difficulties, extreme or abnormal changes in blood pressure or heart rhythm, high fever, abdominal or chest pain or cannot keep water down seek medical help. Dehydration in children is even more dangerous and may require close monitoring and hospitalization more often than in adults.
2) Vomit aspiration. Vomiting in children, alcoholics or people with chronic conditions that cause them to lose control of their motor functions carries the particular risk of vomit aspiration into the lungs. This, in turn, may put the person at risk for short and long-term complications, including aspiration pneumonia.
How can you stop vomiting?
The top vomiting treatment and remedies include:
1) After you vomit several times, it might be best to take antiemetic medication to counteract dehydration and help you keep water down.
2) Rest and have someone help you with preparing food while you recover. Depending on the cause, it may be a few hours or a few days until the vomiting subsides and normal activities can be resumed.
3) Rehydrate with the help of plain water, natural sparkling water (it contains electrolytes such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium), sports drinks like Gatorade, oral rehydration solutions, clear chicken soup or a tea of your choice. Take small sips at a time. Replenishing lost electrolytes is vital for recovering your strength.
4) Treat underlying causes. If you throw up because of a stomach bug, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics, B vitamins or probiotics. If you throw up because of the flu, manage your symptoms accordingly. If your vomiting is caused by acid reflux, gastritis etc., it could help to avoid eating for a few hours to allow the stomach to recover, see a doctor for treatment and start a diet plan suited for the condition you are trying to treat.
5) Skip a meal and eat light. If you’re throwing up, it can help to skip a meal. Avoiding eating for a few hours can allow the stomach time to recover and calm down, allowing you to have a light meal afterwards without vomiting.
6) Ginger tea. While ginger can upset gastritis and accentuate acid reflux, it often makes a good remedy for vomiting, reducing nausea. Ginger tea is the least upsetting for the stomach. You can also add a pinch of powder ginger or freshly grated ginger to water or tea if you don’t have gastritis or acid reflux.
7) Chamomile. Chamomile tea is usually calming and doesn’t trigger nausea and vomiting. It benefits the stomach because of its natural antispasmodic properties. Adding a bit of lemon juice to it can help reduce nausea and possibly stop vomiting.
8) Mint. Drinking mint or peppermint tea can help calm stomach upset, bind stools, reduce stomach cramps and stop nausea, helping relieve vomiting. It could help to add a few drops of mint essential oil to a handkerchief and smell it whenever you feel nausea. If you can’t stand any strong smell, look for other odorless nausea remedies.
9) Rice water. Drinking a cup of the water in which you’ve boiled some plain rice and help with vomiting and diarrhea. Because it may not be pleasant tasting, you could flavor it with a few drops of lemon juice.
10) Fresh air. If you live near a park, in the countryside or somewhere with fresh air, it could help to open the windows and breathe in some fresh air.
11) Cola and other fizzy drinks. Some people experience relief from nausea and vomiting when they have a few small sips of soda. While otherwise not healthy, if it helps stop you from throwing up, it’s a good short-term remedy.
12) Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and activated charcoal. Taking a little baking soda can help stop vomiting if it’s caused by a worked up stomach and stomach acidity because it helps neutralize stomach acid. Activated charcoal helps if you’ve eaten spoiled food or food that’s bad for your stomach.