Introduction and Summary
Feeling sick to your stomach? If you are experiencing an uncomfortable sensation in your stomach, chest, or in the back of your throat that feels like an urge to vomit, you have nausea. If you are actively expelling the contents of your stomach through your mouth or nose, you are experiencing emesis, or vomiting. Nausea and vomiting are caused by many different underlying health conditions—they are not diseases in and of themselves. Patients who have nausea can experience it with or without vomiting, but patients who vomit usually feel nauseated first.
Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms and can indicate a variety of physical and psychological medical conditions, ranging from the mild to the more severe. Most patients who experience nausea or vomiting find that their discomfort is a one-time event and goes away on its own. Occasionally, nausea and vomiting can indicate a more serious illness or condition that requires medical attention.
In this article, I’ll explain nausea and vomiting, discuss the underlying conditions that cause them, talk about how to get rid of nausea, and provide insight into how to stop vomiting once it begins.
- What Is Vomiting?
- Types of Vomiting
- What Is Nausea?
- Symptoms of Nausea
- What Causes Nausea and Vomiting?
- What to Watch for and Risk Factors
- How to Stop Vomiting
- How to Prevent Nausea
- When to See a Doctor
- How K Health Can Help
What Is Vomiting?
Medically referred to as emesis and popularly called “throwing up,” vomiting is the process in which the contents of someone’s stomach reverse their normal course and are forcibly discharged through the mouth, and sometimes, the nose. Vomiting is a protective mechanism, meant to help the body get rid of viruses, parasites, or toxins, but the reflex can also be triggered by external causes, like smells, sights, the motion of a car or boat, certain medical therapies, and medical conditions like pregnancy, ulcers, and concussion, among others.
Most vomiting is accompanied by premonitory signs like nausea, the feeling of uneasiness in the stomach, and retching, or dry heaves. Although vomiting causes feelings of unpleasantness and discomfort for many, patients feel relieved once it is over.
Types of Vomiting
There are many types of vomit, each identified by how patients experience vomiting, the color and consistency of the vomit itself, and other symptoms that accompany an episode.
When patients retch or gag without ever expelling the contents of their stomach, it is called non-productive emesis. Non-productive retching is uncomfortable but common and can be caused by a sight or an odor, anxiety or stress, physical exertion, or pregnancy. Occasionally it can indicate a more serious gastrointestinal condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s disease.
When patients vomit without feeling nauseated or retching first, they are projectile vomiting. Projectile vomiting is a short and violent form of vomiting that can sometimes launch stomach contents several feet away. Projectile vomiting in older children and adults is usually not a cause for concern, but if you are vomiting blood, are experiencing severe abdominal pain, or have been vomiting for more than 24 hours, you may have an underlying condition that requires medical attention. Projectile vomiting in infants is cause for medical concern; if you have a baby vomiting violently, seek medical attention immediately.
When patients experience regular episodes of intense vomiting that is accompanied by nausea, and extreme exhaustion, that could be a sign that they are experiencing cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS). CVS is a disorder that most commonly impacts young children and young adults, though it can impair patients of any age, and requires medical attention to treat effectively.
If you are expelling green vomit, yellow vomit, or vomit that is clear and very thin, you are vomiting bile, a fluid that is released by the liver and helps with digestion. Patients who vomit bile are often throwing up on an empty stomach, are experiencing food poisoning, or have been binge drinking alcohol. Occasionally, yellow vomit can indicate a blockage in the intestines or bile reflux.
Fever and vomiting
Fever and vomiting of any kind, especially when accompanied by diarrhea, often indicates gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining caused by food poisoning, food allergies, parasites, and certain medications. Although vomiting and diarrhea are common, together the symptoms can quickly lead to dehydration, particularly in young children and older adults, so it’s important to replace lost fluids or electrolytes as soon as possible (or to seek medical attention if the dehydration has become severe).
If you have bloody, bright red, or black vomit, or if you are throwing up what looks like coffee-ground vomit, you may be experiencing hematemesis, a severe condition that requires urgent medical attention. Call your doctor or go to your nearest emergency room immediately.
What Is Nausea?
Nausea is a queasy sensation in your upper stomach, chest, and in the back of the throat that feels like an urge to vomit. Although it is not painful, nausea causes feelings of unpleasantness and discomfort.
Nausea is a common condition and usually goes away by itself. It can be triggered by overeating, specific odors, sights, the motion of a car or a boat, certain medical therapies, or an underlying condition. For some patients, nausea comes and goes without explanation.
Symptoms of Nausea
Nausea is a common experience and often is accompanied by other symptoms, mainly vomiting. Other common symptoms that go hand-in-hand with nausea include:
- Pale or clammy skin
- An upset stomach
- Increased salivation
- Dry mouth
Headache and nausea can occur simultaneously in people who suffer from migraines, while diarrhea and nausea are commonly linked in patients suffering from stress, gastrointestinal issues like food poisoning, the stomach flu, and coronavirus (COVID-19).
What Causes Nausea and Vomiting?
Nausea and vomiting are usually caused by one or more problems in the brain, spine, abdominal organs, or inner ear. There are a number of bodily mechanisms involved in the process, including the central nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, the stomach, the endocrine system, and a patient’s psychological state.
Nausea and vomiting can be caused or triggered by over 700 physical and psychological conditions, illnesses, and certain medications and therapies. Most cases are mild, and resolve on their own, though some can be severe and require medical treatment. These conditions include:
- Motion sickness
- Emotional stress or anxiety
- Physical exertion
- Acute pain
- Binge drinking
- Anorexia and bulimia nervosa
- Food poisoning
- Certain medications and therapies
- Head injuries
- Heart attack
In women of childbearing age, nausea (with or without vomiting) can be a sign of early pregnancy. Sometimes called “morning sickness,” though it can occur at any time of the day, pregnancy nausea is caused by the flood of new hormones that women experience as their body changes. The nausea associated with pregnancy typically will become less severe after the first 13 weeks of pregnancy.
What to Watch for and Risk Factors
For certain people, nausea and vomiting can be more dangerous than it is for others. For these at-risk individuals, it’s important to keep an eye on symptoms and seek medical help when necessary.
- Infants: In babies younger than three months old, projectile or violent vomiting is an indication that they may be suffering from a gastrointestinal blockage that requires urgent medical treatment. Seek emergency care right away.
- Children under six: Although occasional vomiting can be normal in young children, they are at risk for developing dehydration more quickly than adults. If your child has had nausea or been vomiting for more than a few hours, has diarrhea or a fever of more than 100° F (37.8° C), sunken eyes or cheeks, a rapid heartbeat, dry lips, cries without tears, or has not urinated in more than four hours, call your doctor right away.
- Women who are pregnant: Roughly two-thirds of women experience nausea and vomiting in the first trimester of pregnancy, but excessive vomiting can indicate a severe form of morning sickness called hyperemesis gravidarum that lead to risks and complications if left untreated. If you are pregnant and experiencing severe nausea and/or vomiting multiple times a day, have become dehydrated or are at risk of becoming dehydrated, and/or are losing weight, call your doctor.
- People who are impaired by alcohol or drugs: Under normal circumstances, protective reflexes like coughing will keep vomit from entering someone’s airways or lungs when it is being expelled. When people are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, however mildly, their reflexes may not work properly, which puts them at a higher risk for choking, asphyxiating, or developing a dangerous lung infection. If you suspect someone under the influence is choking on their vomit, call 911 immediately.
- People at risk of eating disorders: For people who have a history or risk of developing one or more eating disorders, vomiting or even nausea after eating can be a sign that their condition has worsened and that they require a medical and/or psychiatric intervention.
- People who have suffered a head injury: For people who have been hit in the head, vomiting and nausea can be the sign of a brain injury like a concussion. If you or someone you know has had a head injury within the last 24 hours and feels nauseated or is vomiting, seek medical attention right away.
- Older adults: Whatever the underlying cause of vomiting, older adults are more likely to become dehydrated or develop problems with their electrolyte balance. Therefore these people should be especially careful to monitor their symptoms and seek treatment sooner rather than later.
Even if you are not at-risk, if you have been vomiting for more than 24 hours or have had bouts of nausea and/or vomiting for more than a month, especially if you have other symptoms of concern, call your doctor to discuss your symptoms.
How to Stop Vomiting
Although treatment for vomiting largely depends on treating the condition that causes it, there are steps you can take to help mitigate your symptoms and find relief sooner.
- Drink clear liquids to replenish your fluids
- Take deep breaths
- Rest in a comfortable position
- Do not eat solid food until you are finished vomiting
- Reintroduce food slowly, eating small amounts of light, bland food until you feel up to regular meals
- Avoid strong odors that may trigger you to vomit
How to Prevent Nausea
Wondering what helps prevent and relieve nausea? These simple, at-home remedies may help quiet your symptoms, relieve your discomfort, or prevent nausea from happening:
- Drink ginger and peppermint tea
- Try easy acupressure techniques
- Take deep breaths in cool, fresh air (where possible)
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals
- Avoid strong odors or foods that irritate your stomach
- Sit upright after eating
If you are pregnant, try eating crackers before getting out of bed in the morning. The practice may help you mitigate your morning sickness symptoms.
When to See a Doctor
Most of the time nausea and vomiting will go away on their own, but if you are experiencing any of the following, call your doctor to discuss your symptoms:
- You have experienced bouts of nausea or vomiting for more than a month.
- You are experiencing pregnancy or medication-induced nausea or vomiting that is interfering with your daily life.
- You are experiencing unexplained weight loss along with nausea and vomiting.
If you are experiencing any of the following, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room to seek medical treatment immediately:
- Your infant is projectile vomiting.
- Your child under six has been vomiting for more than a few hours or is vomiting, has a fever of 100° F (37.8° C) or more, and/or is showing signs of dehydration.
- Your child over six has been vomiting for more than a day or is vomiting, has a fever of 101° F (38.3° C) or more, and/or is showing signs of dehydration.
- You have vomited for more than a day.
- You see blood in your vomit or your vomit looks like black coffee grounds.
- You are experiencing any chest pain, a stiff neck, unusual headache, rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, severe abdominal pain, lethargy, confusion, or a fever of more than 101° F (38.3° C).
How K Health Can Help
Simple remedies and treatment can help you get over your nausea and/or vomiting fast. Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.