Vomiting — forcefully expelling what’s in your stomach through your mouth — is your body’s way of getting rid of something harmful in the stomach. It may also be a response to irritation in the gut.
Vomiting isn’t a condition, but rather a symptom of other conditions. Some of these conditions are serious, but most aren’t a cause for concern.
Vomiting can be a one-time event, especially when it’s caused by eating or drinking something that doesn’t settle right in the stomach. However, vomiting repeatedly can be a sign of an emergency or a serious underlying condition.
Read on to learn the causes of vomiting in adults, babies, and pregnant women, how to treat it, and when it’s considered an emergency.
The most common causes of vomiting are different in adults, babies, and pregnant or menstruating women.
Vomiting in adults
The most common causes of vomiting in adults include:
- foodborne illnesses (food poisoning)
- bacterial or viral infections, like viral gastroenteritis, which is often referred to as a “stomach bug”
- motion sickness
- migraine headaches
- medications, like antibiotics, morphine, or anesthesia
- excessive alcohol consumption
- acid reflux or GERD
- intense pain
- exposure to toxins, such as lead
- Crohn’s disease
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- food allergies
Vomiting in babies
Common causes of vomiting in babies include:
- viral gastroenteritis
- swallowing milk too quickly, which can be caused by the hole in the bottle teat being too large
- food allergies
- milk intolerance
- other types of infections, including urinary tract infections (UTIs), middle ear infections, pneumonia, or meningitis
- accidentally ingesting a poison
- congenital pyloric stenosis: a condition present at birth in which the passage from the stomach to the bowel has narrowed so food can’t pass through easily
- intussusception: when the bowel telescopes in on itself resulting in a blockage — a medical emergency
Vomiting when pregnant
Causes of vomiting in pregnant women include:
- morning sickness
- acid reflux
- foodborne illnesses (food poisoning)
- migraine headaches
- sensitivity to certain smells or tastes
- extreme morning sickness, known as hyperemesis gravidarum, which is caused by rising hormones
Vomiting during menstruation
Hormone changes during menstruation can make you nauseous and make you throw up. Some women also experience migraine headaches during their periods, which can also cause vomiting.
Treatment for vomiting depends on the underlying cause. Drinking plenty of water and sports drinks containing electrolytes can help prevent dehydration.
Consider these home remedies:
- Eat small meals consisting of only light and plain foods (rice, bread, crackers or the BRAT diet).
- Sip clear liquids.
- Rest and avoid physical activity.
Medications can be helpful:
- Over-the-counter (OTC) medications like Imodium and Pepto-Bismol may help suppress nausea and vomiting as you wait for your body to fight off an infection
- Depending on the cause, a doctor may prescribe antiemetic drugs, like ondansetron (Zofran), granisetron, or promethazine.
- OTC antacids or other prescription medications can help treat the symptoms of acid reflux.
- Anti-anxiety medications can be prescribed if your vomiting is related to an anxiety condition.
- Keep your baby lying on their stomach or side to lessen the chances of inhaling vomit
- Make sure your baby consumes extra fluids, such as water, sugar water, oral rehydration solutions (Pedialyte) or gelatin; if your baby is still breastfeeding, continue to breastfeed often.
- Avoid solid foods.
- See a doctor if your baby refuses to eat or drink anything for more than a few hours.
Pregnant women who have morning sickness or hyperemesis gravidarum may need to receive intravenous fluids if they’re unable to keep down any fluids.
More severe cases of hyperemesis gravidarum might require total parenteral nutrition given through an IV.
A doctor may also prescribe antiemetics, such as promethazine, metoclopramide (Reglan), or droperidol (Inapsine), to help prevent nausea and vomiting. These medications can be given by mouth, IV, or suppository
Adults and babies
Adults and babies should see a doctor if they:
- are vomiting repeatedly for more than a day
- are unable to keep down any fluids
- have green colored vomit or the vomit contains blood
- have signs of severe dehydration, such as fatigue, dry mouth, excessive thirst, sunken eyes, fast heart rate, and little or no urine; in babies, signs of severe dehydration also include crying without producing tears and drowsiness
- have lost significant weight since the vomiting began
- are vomiting off and on for over a month
Pregnant women should see a doctor if their nausea and vomiting makes it impossible to eat or drink or keep anything in the stomach.
Vomiting accompanied by the following symptoms should be treated as a medical emergency:
- severe chest pain
- sudden and severe headache
- shortness of breath
- blurred vision
- sudden stomach pain
- stiff neck and high fever
- blood in the vomit
Infants younger than 3 months who have a rectal fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher, with or without vomiting, should see a doctor.
Predicting when you might vomit
Before you vomit, you may begin to feel nauseous. Nausea can be described as stomach discomfort and the sensation of your stomach churning.
Young children may not be able to recognize nausea, but they may complain of a stomachache before they vomit.
When you begin feeling nauseous, there are a few steps you can take to potentially stop yourself from actually vomiting. The following tips may help prevent vomiting before it starts:
- Take deep breaths.
- Drink ginger tea or eat fresh or candied ginger.
- Take an OTC medication to stop vomiting, such as Pepto-Bismol.
- If you’re prone to motion sickness, take an OTC antihistamine such as Dramamine.
- Suck on ice chips.
- If you’re prone to indigestion or acid reflux, avoid oily or spicy foods.
- Sit down or lie down with your head and back propped up.
Vomiting caused by certain conditions may not always be possible to prevent. For example, consuming enough alcohol to cause a toxic level in your bloodstream will result in vomiting as your body attempts to return to a non-toxic level.
Drinking plenty of water and other liquids to replenish lost fluids is important after a bout of vomiting. Start slowly by sipping water or sucking on ice chips, then add in more clear liquids like sports drinks or juice. You can make your own rehydration solution using:
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 6 teaspoons sugar
- 1 liter water
You shouldn’t have a big meal after you vomit. Begin with saltine crackers or plain rice or bread. You should also avoid foods that are difficult to digest, like:
- fatty or fried foods
- spicy food
After you vomit, you should rinse your mouth with cool water to remove any stomach acid that could damage your teeth. Don’t brush your teeth right after vomiting as this could cause damage to the already weakened enamel.
Vomiting is a common symptom of many conditions. Most often, vomiting in both adults and babies is a result of an infection called gastroenteritis, indigestion, or food poisoning. However, there can be several other causes.
In pregnant women, vomiting is often a sign of morning sickness.
Vomiting can be concerning if a person shows signs of severe dehydration, or it accompanies chest pain, sudden and severe abdominal pain, a high fever, or a stiff neck. People who’ve recently had a head injury or are vomiting blood should see a doctor right away.
If you’re experiencing vomiting, make sure to sip water and other clear fluids to prevent dehydration. Eat small meals when you’re able to, consisting of plain foods like crackers.
If the vomiting doesn’t subside in a few days, see a doctor.