Vomiting is an uncontrollable reflex that expels the contents of the stomach through the mouth. It’s also called “being sick” or “throwing up.” Nausea is a term that describes the feeling that you might vomit, but aren’t actually vomiting.
Both nausea and vomiting are very common symptoms and can be caused by a wide range of factors. They occur in both children and adults, although they’re probably most common in pregnant women and people 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 relatively common causes, including:
If you have gallstones, you’re also likely to feel nauseated.
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 aren’t pregnant. Pregnancy-induced nausea 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
- high fevers
In very young infants, blocked intestines can also cause persistent vomiting. The intestines may become blocked by abnormal muscular thickening, hernia, gallstones, or tumors. This is uncommon, but should be investigated if unexplained vomiting occurs in an infant.
Vomiting in adults
Most adults rarely vomit. When it does occur, a bacterial or viral infection or a type of food poisoning usually causes vomiting. In some cases, vomiting can also be the result of other illnesses, especially if they lead to a headache or high fever.
Chronic stomach conditions
Chronic, or long-term, stomach conditions can often cause nausea and vomiting. These conditions can come along with other symptoms, such as diarrhea, constipation, and stomach pain. These chronic conditions include food intolerances, such as celiac disease and dairy protein and lactose intolerance.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common stomach condition that causes bloating, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, fatigue, and cramping. It occurs when parts of the gut become overactive. Doctors usually diagnose IBS 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.
Doctors usually diagnose Crohn’s disease using a colonoscopy, a procedure that uses a small camera to explore the colon. Sometimes they also need a stool sample to help diagnose the condition.
Certain lifestyle choices can increase your chance of experiencing nausea and vomiting.
Consuming a large amount of alcohol can cause damage to the lining of the gut. Alcohol can also 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 is when a person adjusts their eating habits and behaviors based on an unhealthy body image. It can cause nausea and vomiting.
Bulimia is an eating disorder in which a person induces vomiting deliberately to purge the stomach of any consumed food. People with anorexia may also feel nausea due to starvation and excess stomach acid.
Though rare, vomiting can sometimes occur as a symptom of a more serious condition, including:
If you’re persistently vomiting, go see your doctor.
When to get help
Seek medical care if you have nausea or are vomiting for more than a week. Most cases of vomiting clear up within 6 to 24 hours after the first episode.
Under 6 years old
Seek emergency care for any child under 6 years old who:
- has both vomiting and diarrhea
- has projectile vomiting
- is showing symptoms of dehydration, like 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°F (38°C)
- hasn’t urinated in more than six hours
Over 6 years old
Seek emergency care for children over 6 years old if:
- vomiting has lasted for more than 24 hours
- there are symptoms of dehydration
- the child hasn’t urinated in more than six hours
- the child appears confused or lethargic
- the child has a fever higher than 102°F (39°C)
Seek emergency medical care if you have any of the following symptoms:
You can use a number of methods to relieve nausea and vomiting, including home remedies and medications.
Self-treatment for nausea
To treat nausea at home:
- 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.
- Drink a cup of ginger tea.
Self-treatment for vomiting
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals.
- Drink a large amount of clear fluids to remain hydrated, but consume it in small sips at a time.
- Avoid solid foods of any kind until vomiting stops.
- Avoid using medications that may upset your stomach, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or corticosteroids.
- Use an oral rehydration solution to replace lost electrolytes.
Before prescribing medication, you doctor will ask you questions about when the nausea and vomiting began and when it’s at its worst. They may also ask you about your eating habits and whether anything makes the vomiting and nausea better or worse.
A number of prescription medications can control nausea and vomiting, including medications you can use during pregnancy. These include promethazine (Phenergan), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), trimethobenzamide (Tigan), and ondansetron (Zofran).
Most nausea and vomiting will clear up on its own, unless you have 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 decays 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 start to feel nauseated, eat plain crackers before getting up and try to consume a high-protein food, such as cheese, lean meat, or nuts, before you go to sleep.
If you’re vomiting, try to drink small amounts of a sugary liquid, such as a soda or fruit juice. Drinking ginger ale or eating ginger can help settle your stomach. Avoid acidic juices, such as orange juice. They may upset your stomach further.
Over-the-counter medications, such as meclizine (Bonine) and dimenhydrinate (Dramamine), can lessen the effects of motion sickness. Limit snacks during car rides and look straight out of a front window if you’re prone to motion sickness.