What Are Nausea and Vomiting?
Causes of Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea and vomiting are not diseases, but both are common symptoms of many conditions, such as:
- Gallbladder disease
- Food poisoning
- Infections (such as "stomach flu")
- Bulimia or other psychological illnesses
- Gastroparesis , or slow stomach emptying (a condition seen in people with diabetes)
Nausea and vomiting can also result from:
- Motion sickness or seasickness
- Early stages of pregnancy (Nausea happens in 50%-90% of pregnancies; vomiting in 25%-55%.)
- Ingesting something toxic
- A reaction to medicines
- Intense pain
- Emotional stress (such as fear)
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Using illicit drugs
- Reactions to certain smells or odors
Vomiting in children
Children are more prone to vomiting than adults. Some common reasons children vomit include:
Vomiting in adults
One common cause of vomiting in adults is gastroenteritis, a gut infection caused by bacteria. It's often called "stomach flu," though it isn't a type of flu at all. Other common causes are:
- Food poisoning
- Labyrinthitis, an inner ear infection that makes you feel dizzy
- Motion sickness
Chronic stomach conditions
Some long-term stomach issues, such as food allergies and peptic ulcers, can cause vomiting. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also cause it, especially if you eat too quickly or too much, or eat certain foods. Both nausea and vomiting are side effects of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which happens when part of your gut becomes overactive. They're also symptoms of Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that usually affects your intestines.
Drinking too much can cause you to vomit, since alcohol irritates your stomach lining. Alcohol also increases stomach acid production and delays stomach emptying. Both these things can cause vomiting.
Using too much marijuana, or taking other illicit drugs, may also lead to vomiting.
Overeating (eating even after you're full) can sometimes cause vomiting, too.
Vomiting can be a sign of an eating disorder. People with anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight and restrict how many calories they eat, sometime to a life-threatening degree. They may also use laxatives or make themselves vomit after eating. People with bulimia also have an extreme fear of weight gain. They eat excessive amounts of food in a short time (called bingeing) followed by vomiting or using laxatives.
Sometimes, vomiting is a side effect of serious illnesses like:
Nausea With Other Symptoms
If you're trying to figure out what's causing your nausea, consider when it happens and what other symptoms you may have.
Is nausea a sign of COVID-19?
Nausea can be a sign of COVID, one that is often overlooked. The COVID-19 virus usually attacks the lungs, but sometimes also attacks the digestive tract. Other symptoms of COVID include a fever and a cough.
Nausea and headache
If your nausea comes with a headache, you could be having a migraine. Some 60%-90% of people with migraines have nausea during an attack. Other migraine symptoms may include:
- Aura (visual or sensory symptoms like hallucinations, numbness, or muscle weakness)
- Sensitivity to light
- A change in mood or behavior.
The nausea/migraine connection isn't clear. Some think there's a link between head pain and nausea. But often the nausea comes on well before the headache.
You may also have nausea with other types of headaches, including those from hangovers.
Pregnancy and nausea
Nausea during the first trimester of pregnancy is extremely common. It's sometimes called "morning sickness," though it can happen at any time of day. Scientists think it's brought on by an increase in a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG).
People with serious morning sickness, a condition called hyperemesis gravidarum, have higher levels of HCG than others.
Nausea after eating
Having nausea after eating could be a sign of:
- A bacterial or viral infection
- Food poisoning
- Food allergy
- Stress or anxiety
- Acid reflux
- Irritable bowel syndrome
If you feel nauseated or if you vomit shortly after a meal, the cause may be food poisoning, gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining), an ulcer, or bulimia. If it happens 1-8 hours after you eat, that may also indicate food poisoning. But certain foodborne bacteria, such as salmonella, can take longer to produce symptoms.
Nausea and diarrhea
Norovirus, also known as the "stomach flu" or "stomach bug," is a very contagious virus that causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Norovirus can infect and sicken anyone. You can get norovirus when you eat food contaminated with it or touch someone or an object infected with it and then, for instance, put your fingers in your mouth.
If you're having symptoms and they don't improve in 2 to 3 days, call a doctor.
Can periods cause nausea?
You might have nausea during your periods. This may be due to the changing hormones in your body. You might also get nausea if you have dysmenorrhea (very painful periods) or premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Vomiting With Other Symptoms
There are several reasons you could have vomiting along with other symptoms.
Is vomiting a symptom of COVID-19?
Like nausea, vomiting can be a sign of COVID-19. You'll usually also have respiratory symptoms, like coughing and trouble breathing. But in some cases, the only symptoms of COVID are digestive ones like vomiting and diarrhea.
Vomiting and diarrhea
Vomiting with diarrhea is often the result of either stomach flu or food poisoning. When you have both symptoms, the loss of fluids can put you at a higher risk of dehydration, which can be serious. Children and older people can get dehydrated quickly. And symptoms of dehydration, like increased thirst and a dry mouth, may not show up at first.
Vomiting and headache
About 50% to 62% of people who get migraines have vomiting episodes. For some people, vomiting can stop a migraine attack.
If you can't keep your migraine medication down because of vomiting, your doctor can prescribe it as a nasal spray, dissolving tablet, or suppository. You can also take an anti-nausea medicine along with your migraine treatment.
If you're vomiting blood, you could have bleeding in your esophagus (food pipe) which runs from your mouth to your stomach. This can happen when you cough a lot. You might also vomit blood due to:
- Gastritis (an inflamed stomach lining)
- A stomach ulcer
- Alcohol-related liver disease
- Heartburn and acid reflux
Is Vomiting Harmful?
Vomiting itself is usually harmless. The biggest danger is dehydration, which results from losing too much fluid from your body.
If you vomit repeatedly for a long time, such as when you have an eating disorder or a health condition that causes vomiting, stomach acid can damage your esophagus or the enamel of your teeth.
Dehydration in kids
Adults can usually detect the symptoms of dehydration . But young children run a greater risk of dehydration, especially if they also have diarrhea, because they often can't tell you they have symptoms.
Adults caring for sick children need to know these visible signs:
- Dry lips and mouth
- Sunken eyes
- Rapid breathing or pulse
In infants, watch for decreased peeing and a sunken fontanelle (soft spot on top of the baby's head).
Nausea and Vomiting Treatments
Nausea and vomiting usually go away on their own. But there are steps you can take to reduce them and feel better in the meantime.
Nausea and vomiting remedies
- Drink clear liquids, such as water, ginger ale, or lemonade. Take small sips at first, and gradually increase the amounts.
- Avoid solid food until the vomiting has passed.
- Eat bland food, like crackers, toast, and gelatin. If you can tolerate those, move on to foods like cereal, rice, and fruit.
- Avoid greasy food.
- Avoid strong smells like cooking, perfume, and smoke. You may also need to avoid flickering lights and driving.
- If vomiting and diarrhea last more than 24 hours, use an oral rehydrating solution you can get at the drugstore.
- Pregnant women who have morning sickness can eat crackers before getting out of bed. You can also eat a high-protein snack, like lean meat or cheese, before going to bed.
Medication for nausea and vomiting
There are many over-the-counter remedies for nausea as well as prescription drugs to treat nausea linked to morning sickness, acid reflux, or pregnancy. It's a good idea to check with your doctor before using over-the-counter treatments.
Nausea and vomiting are common side effects of cancer treatments. People with cancer usually take medication for nausea while having treatment.
Nausea and Vomiting Complications
If nausea or vomiting lasts for long time, such as when you have a condition or take a medication that causes it, you may have trouble getting enough nutrients. This can cause malnutrition and weight loss. Your doctor may recommend that you use nutritional drinks to boost your calorie and nutrient intake.
Cyclic vomiting syndrome
Constant nausea and vomiting could be a sign of cyclic vomiting syndrome, in which you have repeated attacks of nausea and vomiting for no known reason. These attacks may last for hours or days.
Repeated vomiting during pregnancy is called hyperemesis gravidarum. With this serious type of morning sickness, you might vomit more than three times a day. It can lead to fluid and mineral imbalances that can endanger your life or that of your fetus.
In rare cases, too much vomiting can tear the lining of your esophagus, which is known as a Mallory-Weiss tear. If the esophagus ruptures, it's called Boerhaave's syndrome, and it's a medical emergency.
How Can I Prevent Nausea?
To keep nausea from developing:
- Eat small meals throughout the day instead of three large ones.
- Eat slowly.
- Avoid hard-to-digest foods.
- Eat foods that are cold or room temperature if you're nauseated by the smell of hot or warm foods.
- Rest after eating with your head elevated about 12 inches above your feet.
- Drink liquids between meals rather than during meals.
- Try to eat at times when you feel less nauseated.
- If you think you might get motion sickness during a car ride, take over-the-counter medication beforehand.
How Do I Prevent Vomiting Once I Feel Nauseated?
When you're feeling nauseated, you may be able to prevent vomiting by:
- Drinking small amounts of clear, sweetened liquids such as soda or fruit juices. Avoid orange and grapefruit juices, which are too acidic.
- Resting, either in a sitting position or in a propped-up lying position. Activity may worsen nausea and lead to vomiting.
To prevent vomiting in children:
- If they feel nauseated due to motion sickness in a car, seat them so they face the front windshield. (Seeing movement out of the side windows can make nausea worse.)
- Don't let them read or play video games, as these can cause or worsen motion sickness.
- Don't let them eat and play at the same time. Moving around while eating can lead to vomiting.
When Should I Talk to a Doctor?
Talk to your doctor about nausea and vomiting if:
- It lasts for more than a few days or if it's possible you're pregnant.
- Home treatment isn't working.
- You have signs of dehydration.
- You've have had an injury.
- The vomiting lasts more than 2 days for adults, 24 hours for kids under 2, or 12 hours for babies.
- You've had episodes for longer than a month.
- You also have unexplained weight loss.
When to seek medical care for children who are vomiting:
Take children under 6 to the doctor if:
- They also have diarrhea or fever.
- They've been vomiting for longer than a few hours.
- You think they might have dehydration.
- They haven't peed for 4 hours or more.
Take a child over 6 to the doctor if:
- Vomiting lasts a full day, especially if they also have diarrhea.
- Their temperature is above 102 F.
- You notice signs of dehydration.
- They haven't peed in 6 hours.
Get emergency medical help if:
- You also have chest pain, serious stomach pain, blurred vision, confusion, a high fever, a stiff neck, or bleeding from your rectum.
- You also have an intense headache and this hasn't happened before.
- You have signs of serious dehydration, like excessive thirst, dark urine, and weakness or dizziness.
- Your vomit contains blood or looks like coffee grounds.
Nausea and vomiting are symptoms of many diseases or conditions. Most of the time, they can be treated with home remedies or self-care. But in some situations, such as when they come with headaches or your vomiting lasts longer than 2 days, you need to see a doctor.
Does my nausea mean I am pregnant or sick?
If you think you may be pregnant, confirm this with a pregnancy test. If you think you may be sick, consider what other symptoms you have. If you have nausea for no apparent reason and it doesn't pass in a day or two, see a doctor. It could be a sign of something serious.
Why do I feel like throwing up but I don t?
Vomiting can follow nausea, but it doesn't always. Lots of things, some as simple as sleep loss, hunger, or thirst, can cause nausea. If you feel nauseated, try to distract yourself, get some fresh air, or move away from whatever is nauseating you, such as a cooking smell. Take small sips of water or ginger ale. Some people get relief by drinking ginger tea or peppermint tea.