Nausea and Vomiting Causes, Symptoms, Diet, and Treatment Options

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

woman with abdominal pain

Nausea and vomiting definition and facts

  • Nausea and vomiting are symptoms of a disease or condition. Examples include:
  • It is important to control nausea, vomiting, and any other associated symptoms both for comfort's sake and to prevent dehydration since dehydration can worsen your nausea and vomiting.
  • The cause of your nausea and vomiting, and any other associated symptoms, for example, a medication, disease, or condition, food, should be identified and treated.
  • Generally, non-serious causes of nausea and vomiting can be relieved with OTC (over-the-counter) medicine (medication that is available with out a prescription from your doctor), or if known, discontinuing the offending product.
  • More severe cases of nausea and vomiting may require medical treatment.
  • Remember, never stop taking your prescription drugs without talking with your doctor or health care professional first.

What is nausea? What is vomiting?

Nausea and vomiting are symptoms of an underlying illness and due to a not a specific disease. Nausea is the sensation that the stomach wants to empty itself, while vomiting (emesis) or throwing up, is the act of forcible emptying of the stomach. The term "dry heaves" (retching) refers to an episode of vomiting where there is no food in the stomach to vomit, and only small amounts of clear secretions are vomited.

Vomiting is a violent act in which the stomach, the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine forcibly expel contents of the stomach (and sometimes the small intestine) in a coordinated fashion.

What causes nausea or vomiting?

There are numerous causes of nausea and vomiting. These symptoms may be due to:

  • Acute gastritis (direct irritation of the stomach lining)
  • Central causes in which signals from the vomiting center in the brain cause nausea and vomiting
  • Other illnesses not due to stomach problems, for example, brain tumors, pancreatitis, and appendicitis
  • Medications, medical treatments, and illicit or illegal drugs, drug or alcohol overdose
  • Mechanical obstruction of the bowel

Throat and stomach irritants that cause nausea and vomiting

Acute gastritis or esophagitis often caused by something that irritates the lining of the stomach or throat. Examples include:

  • Infections: Infections are often the cause of stomach irritation, whether it is a common virus or another type of infection. There may be associated crampy upper abdominal pain that is associated with the nausea and vomiting. Fever ,and chills may be present. Common viral infections include noroviruses and rotavirus. Infection by bacteria in the Helicobacter family (such as H. Pylori) can also be the infectious agent.
  • Stomach flu: Stomach flu (gastroenteritis) is when vomiting and diarrhea occur together and is associated with a viral infectio that is outside of the stomach. It should not be confused with the flu (influenza), a viral infection with symptoms include fever, chills, cough, and muscle pain.
  • Food poisoning: Food poisoning may cause significant vomiting, and the most common cause is a toxin released by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. Symptoms of food poisoning begin within a couple hours of eating contaminated or poorly prepared food. Other bacterial causes of food poisoning include Salmonella, Campylobacter, Shigella, E. coli, Listeria, or Clostridium botulinum (botulism).
  • Other stomach irritants: alcohol, smoking, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen may irritate the stomach lining and cause nausea and vomiting.
  • Peptic ulcer disease: Peptic ulcer disease can range from mild irritation of the stomach lining to the formation of a defect in the protective lining of the stomach called an ulcer.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD, reflux esophagitis): Nausea or vomiting is also associated with GERD (acid from the stomach is refluxed into the esophagus).

Quick GuideDigestive Disorders: Common Misconceptions

Digestive Disorders: Common Misconceptions
Child with nausea and vomiting

Nausea and Vomiting Symptoms

Other signs and symptoms that may be associated with nausea and vomiting include the following:

  • Headache
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • A general feeling of being sick to one's stomach

Some people may experience the following related nausea and vomiting symptoms and signs:

  • Stomach Cramps
  • Abdominal Pain
  • Diarrhea

Nausea and vomiting caused by neurological conditions

  • Headache: especially migraine, is commonly associated with nausea and vomiting.
  • Inner ear: Motion sickness, labyrinthitis, benign positional vertigo, or Meniere's disease
  • Increased intracranial pressure: Any illness or injury that increases the pressure within the skull can cause vomiting.
    • Brain swelling due to trauma (includes bleeding within the brain)
    • Infection (meningitis or encephalitis)
    • Tumors (benign or malignant)
    • Abnormal electrolyte concentrations in the bloodstream and associated water imbalance
    • Concussion, patients with head injuries do not have to have detectable bleeding in the brain or brain swelling to have symptoms of brain irritation, which can include headache, nausea, vomiting, changes in vision, confusion, difficulty concentrating, and difficulty sleeping.
  • Noxious stimulae: Certain smells or sounds can cause nausea and vomiting that originates in the brain. Whether it is the pain of a broken bone or the emotional shock of observing an event, vasovagal events can cause significant symptoms. In a vasovagal episode, the vagus nerve (one of the nerves that helps control basic body functions like heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure) is overly stimulated and can cause the heart rate to slow and blood vessels to dilate. This decreases the flow of blood to the brain and can cause fainting (syncope).
  • Heat related illness: For example heat exhaustion, extreme sunburn, or dehydration

Other diseases and conditions that cause nausea and vomiting

  • Diabetes: Persons with diabetes may develop nausea because of gastroparesis, a condition in which the stomach fails to empty properly and is likely due to the generalized neuropathy (failure of the nerves in the body to send proper signals to and from the brain or regeneration of nerves in the stomach) that is a complication of the disease.

People with diabetes can also develop nausea and vomiting should their blood sugars become abnormally high or low (hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia) because the sugar and insulin balance is disturbed.

  • Diseases, illness, or conditions: Many illnesses associated with the intra-abdominal organs can produce the symptoms of nausea and vomiting. These include digestive organ disease ssuch as:
  • Abdominal adhesions. Abdominal pain and distention, nausea and vomiting, and inability to pass flatus (gas) or have a bowel movement are symptoms of intestinal (bowel obstruction). Common causes of bowel obstruction include previous surgery with the formation of adhesions, hernias, abnormal twisting of the GI tract, tumors, and inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD (ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease..
  • Vomiting as an atypical symptom of another disease: Some additional illnesses will cause nausea and vomiting, even though there is no direct involvement of the stomach or gastrointestinal tract.
    • Heart attack victims may experience nausea and vomiting as an atypical symptom of angina, especially if the heart attack affects the inferior or lower part of the heart.
    • Lung infections, for example, pneumonia and bronchitis, may also cause nausea and vomiting, especially if the area of lung involved is near the diaphragm, the muscle that separates the chest form the abdomen.
  • Sepsis: An overwhelming body infection spread through the bloodstream may also be associated with nausea and vomiting.
  • Eating disorders: Patients with bulimia will have self-induced vomiting, purging as part of their psychiatric illness

Quick GuideDigestive Disorders: Common Misconceptions

Digestive Disorders: Common Misconceptions

Nausea and vomiting caused by medications and medical treatments

  • Side effects from medications: The side effect of many medications include stomach irritation and/or nausea and vomiting. Anti-cancer drugs used for chemotherapy commonly cause nausea and vomiting that is not easily relieved. Narcotic pain medications, anti-inflammatory medications, steroids, and antibiotics all have nausea and vomiting listed as common side effects.
  • Radiation therapy: Nausea and vomiting can be associated with radiation therapy.
  • Chemotherapy for cancer

Morning sickness nausea and vomiting during pregnancy

Vomiting in pregnancy is especially common in the first trimester due to hormone level changes in the bloodstream.

Vomiting in infants

It may be hard to decide if an infant is vomiting or spitting up. If the episodes occur shortly after feeding and only a small amount comes up, this may be spitting up.

  • Forceful vomiting: In the first two or three months, if the vomiting is forceful after eating (imagine it flying across the room), this may be a sign of pyloric stenosis, or an abnormal narrowing of the pylorus, the location where the stomach empties into the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine). The vomiting is impressive and is described as projectile. The diagnosis is often made by history and physical examination, confirmed by ultrasound. The treatment is surgery.
  • Vomiting associated with pain: if the infant cries uncontrollably, and if the stool is bloody or red, the diagnosis may be an intussusception (the pushing of one segment of the bowel into an adjacent segment). The stool is classically described as currant jelly, but any blood in the stool is not normal and should always be a cause for concern. It is reasonable to seek medical care for any inconsolable infant.
  • Viral infection: If there is vomiting with associated diarrhea that is not bloody, then a viral infection is a possibility. Alternatively, there may be an issue with intolerance to the type of baby formula. Infants and children are at greater risk of dehydration if the vomiting episodes last for more than 24 hours. If dehydration is suspected, seek medical care. Signs and symptoms of dehydration in an infant include dry mouth, lack of sweat in the armpits and groin, sunken eyes, weakness with a poor cry, and decreased muscle tone.

How do doctors diagnose the cause of nausea and vomiting?

Diagnosis often can be made when the health care professional takes a careful history and performs a physical examination. Any tests that need to be ordered will be based on the information from the history and physical exam, and sometimes no further testing is required to make the diagnosis.

Laboratory tests and X-rays may be ordered to assess the stability of the patient and not necessarily to make the diagnosis. For example, a patient with food poisoning may need blood tests ordered to measure the electrolytes(minerals) and other chemicals, since the patient may lose significant amounts of sodium, potassium, and chloride from the body from persistent vomiting and diarrhea.

Urinalysis may be helpful in assessing hydration status. Concentrated, dark urine is associated with dehydration because the kidneys try to preserve as much water as possible in the body. Ketones in the urine are also a sign of dehydration.

What natural home remedies help relieve for nausea or vomiting?

It is important to rest the stomach and yet still avoid dehydration. Clear fluids should be attempted for the first 24 hours of an illness, and then the diet should be advanced as tolerated.

Clear fluids are easy for the stomach to absorb and include:

  • Water
  • Sports drinks
  • Clear broths
  • Popsicles
  • Jello

It is important not to take too much fluid at one time since stretching the stomach theoretically may cause the nausea to worsen. One to two ounces of fluid at a time, taken every 10-15 minutes, may be all that the stomach will be able to tolerate. In infants and children, the amount may be as little as 5 or 10 cc's or less than a third of an ounce at a time.

Milk products should be avoided for the first 24-48 hours during an episode of nausea and vomiting. If the infection involves the small intestine, the enzyme that helps digest milk is located in cells lining the small intestine can become depleted. This can reduce the tolerance to milk and milk-containing products and lead to, bloating, vomiting, and diarrhea. As the affected individual begins to feel better, they can begin to reintroduce foods, but to help the stomach readjust, health care professionals often recommend limiting the diet to bland foods such as bananas, applesauce, rice, toast (the BRAT diet).

What is the medical treatment for nausea or vomiting?

Nausea and vomiting can be treated with medication at the same time as the search for the underlying diagnosis is being carried out. Ideally, these symptoms should resolve when the underlying illness is treated and controlled.

Nausea and vomiting are often made worse when you are dehydrated, resulting in a vicious cycle. The nausea makes it difficult to drink fluid, making the dehydration worse, which then increases the nausea. Intravenous fluids may be provided to correct this issue and break the cycle.

There are a variety of anti-nausea medications (antiemetics) that your doctor may prescribe. These drugs can be administered in different ways depending upon the your ability to take them. Medications are available by pill, liquid, or tablets that dissolve on or under the tongue, by intravenous or intramuscular injection, or by rectal suppository.

Common medications used to control nausea and vomiting include:

The decision as to which medication to use will depend on the patient's condition.

When should I call the doctor if I have nausea and vomiting?

If the symptoms last for more than 24 hours, if the diagnosis is uncertain, if there is concern about dehydration, or if the patient has underlying medical conditions that make them more fragile, medical care should be accessed sooner, rather than later.

Infants and children are more susceptible to dehydration and may not have as much reserve as an adult. If there is concern about dehydration or the inability to tolerate fluids, a health care professional should be contacted.

If nausea and vomiting are associated with pain, fever, vomiting blood, or having bloody or black, tarry bowel movements, medical care should be sought immediately.

Vomiting is a symptom of an illness, if the symptom persists for more than 24-48 hours, it may be wise to contact a health care professional.

REFERENCE: Tintinalli J, et al. Tintinalli's Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide. 8th edition. McGraw-Hill Professional 2015.

Last Editorial Review: 7/19/2017

Reviewed on 7/19/2017
References
REFERENCE: Tintinalli J, et al. Tintinalli's Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide. 8th edition. McGraw-Hill Professional 2015.

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