What Is Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome?

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on November 27, 2022
3 min read

Cyclic vomiting syndrome is a rare condition. With it, you can have times of intense nausea, throwing up and other stomach problems for no apparent reason.

These bouts can happen months apart, but sometimes they’re serious enough that you’ll need to go to the hospital.

Though doctors have known about cyclic vomiting syndrome since the late 1800s, they don’t know the cause.

However, people who get migraine headaches, have diabetes or have problems with anxiety or depression sometimes have the syndrome as well. It’s slightly more common in girls than boys, and is seen more in whites than in African-Americans or Latinos.

And while the exact cause hasn’t been found, several things might set off the vomiting, including:

  • Physical or emotional stress
  • Motion sickness
  • Infections of the sinuses, throat or lungs
  • Some foods
  • Menstrual periods
  • Hot weather

Marijuana use has been linked to the syndrome, but some people say the drug eases the nausea they get.

If you are throwing up like this, talk to your doctor. And be honest if you use pot.

The main issue is intense nausea, which may come with strong stomach pains. It often sets in early in the morning and can last for several days. A typical bout may unfold like this:

  • You might start to feel thirsty and sweaty and look pale.
  • Your mouth might start watering, and you find yourself spitting.
  • You might feel dizzy or want to avoid light.
  • Once vomiting starts, it might happen as much as several times an hour.
  • You might also have diarrhea, a headache or a mild fever.

Doctors don’t see it much. Cyclic vomiting syndrome happens more in children than adults. Only about 1.9% of children get it, one study found. The numbers for adults are less clear, though it may be more often than once thought.

Even though it’s rare, call your doctor if you are having symptoms.

Doctors often figure out whether you have the condition by ruling out other possible causes, such as food poisoning, the flu or problems with your digestive system.

Your doctor will do a physical exam, ask about earlier episodes and look at your family and medical history.

They might give you blood or urine tests, X-rays or use other instruments to look for stomach, intestine or kidney problems. You might be sent to a gastroenterologist, a doctor who treats problems with the digestive system.

Your doctor might recommend medication you can take to keep it from getting worse.

Anti-nausea drugs might keep you from vomiting. You may take antacids to cut the amount of acid in your stomach or take other medicines to stop a migraine or lower your anxiety. And you’ll probably be told to stay in bed in a quiet, dark room.

Dehydration is the biggest complication. If a bout is bad enough, you might have to go to a hospital to replace the fluids and electrolytes you lost through vomiting. You might also need other drugs to ease your symptoms.

Other complications might include:

  • Esophagitis, which means the tube that goes from your throat to your stomach gets irritated by the acid you throw up.
  • Stomach acid can also damage the enamel on your teeth or cause tooth decay.
  • Severe vomiting might cause a tear in the lower end of the esophagus. See a doctor right away if you see blood in your vomit or your stools when you go to the bathroom.

Try to figure out what things seem to set off vomiting in your or your child, and then avoid those as much as possible. It might be certain foods. Or it could be stressful situations.

Children who have the syndrome sometimes grow out of it, but many of them get migraines as adults.

Your doctor can help you come up with a plan to manage the condition and refer you to a gastroenterologist. The nonprofit Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome Association can help you find a doctor familiar with the problem, and it encourages people to join studies in search of causes and cures.