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Is Vomiting Harmful?

Usually, vomiting is harmless, but it can be a sign of a more serious illness. Some examples of serious conditions that may result in nausea or vomiting include concussions, meningitis (infection of the membrane linings of the brain), intestinal blockage, appendicitis, and brain tumors.

Another concern is dehydration. Adults have a lower risk of becoming dehydrated, because they can usually detect the symptoms of dehydration (such as increased thirst and dry lips or mouth). But young children have a greater risk of becoming dehydrated, especially if they also have diarrhea, because they often are unable to communicate symptoms of dehydration. Adults caring for sick children need to be aware of these visible signs of dehydration: dry lips and mouth, sunken eyes, and rapid breathing or pulse. In infants, also watch for decreased urination and a sunken fontanelle (soft spot on top of the baby's head).

Recurrent vomiting in pregnancy can lead to a serious condition called hyperemesis gravidarum in which the mother may develop fluid and mineral imbalances that can endanger her life or that of her unborn child.

Rarely, excessive vomiting can tear the lining of the esophagus, also known as a Mallory-Weiss tear. If the esophagus is ruptured, this is called Boerhaave's syndrome, and is a medical emergency.

When to Call the Doctor About Nausea and Vomiting

Call a doctor about nausea and vomiting:

  • If the nausea lasts for more than a few days or if there is a possibility of being pregnant
  • If home treatment is not working, dehydration is present, or a known injury has occurred (such as head injury or infection) that may be causing the vomiting
  • Adults should consult a doctor if vomiting occurs for more than one day, diarrhea and vomiting last more than 24 hours, or there are signs of dehydration.
  • Take an infant or child under six years to the doctor if vomiting lasts more than a few hours, diarrhea is present, signs of dehydration occur, there is a fever, or if the child hasn't urinated for 4-6 hours.
  • Take a child over age six years to the doctor if vomiting lasts one day, diarrhea combined with vomiting lasts for more than 24 hours, there are any signs of dehydration, there is a fever higher than 101 degrees, or the child hasn't urinated for six hours.

You should seek immediate medical care if any of the following situations occur with vomiting:

  • There is blood in the vomit (bright red or "coffee grounds" in appearance)
  • Severe headache or stiff neck
  • Lethargy, confusion, or a decreased alertness
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Rapid breathing or pulse