Vomiting is rarely painful, but never pleasant. Vomiting, also known scientifically as “emesis” and colloquially as throwing up, retching, heaving, hurling, puking, tossing, or being sick, is the forcible voluntary or involuntary emptying of stomach contents through the mouth or, less often, the nose.
There are different types of vomiting. Some people get the dry heaves, where you retch and feel like vomiting, but nothing comes out of your stomach. The dry heaves are also called nonproductive emesis.
Blood streaked or bloody vomit usually indicates a cut or scrape to the esophagus or stomach. Some vomit resembles coffee grounds. Vomit that looks like coffee grounds occurs when stomach acids and blood congeal. Coffee ground vomit can be a sign of ulcer, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), cancer of the stomach or liver, or other abdominal conditions.
Yellow vomit indicates the presence of bile, which usually happens after a meal.
It’s rare, but people with abnormal intestinal function could possibly vomit up partially digested food or feces. (1,2)
Causes and Risk Factors of Vomiting
Vomiting is an involuntary reflex that empties the stomach forcefully. Some people may also self-induce vomiting due to an eating disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, causes for nausea and vomiting vary widely and can include: (3)
- Early stages of pregnancy
- Medication-induced vomiting
- Intense pain
- Emotional stress (such as fear)
- Gallbladder disease
- Food poisoning
- Infections (such as the "stomach flu")
- A reaction to certain smells or odors
- Heart attack
- Concussion or brain injury
- Brain tumor
- Some forms of cancer
- Bulimia or other psychological illnesses
- Gastroparesis or slow stomach emptying (a condition that can be seen in people with diabetes)
- Ingestion of toxins or excessive amounts of alcohol
- Labyrinthitis, which also causes dizziness and a feeling of spinning (vertigo)
- Motion sickness, nausea and vomiting associated with traveling
- Certain medicines, such as antibiotics and opioid painkillers
- Kidney infections and kidney stones
- A blockage in your bowel, which may be caused by a hernia or gallstones
- Chemotherapy and radiotherapy
- An inflamed gallbladder (acute cholecystitis)
How Is Vomiting Diagnosed?
If you need to see a doctor for vomiting, they will take your medical history and perform a physical exam to try to find the underlying cause. A history of your medication will be taken to see if vomiting is a side effect.
Blood and urine tests may be done to look for signs of infection. Women may also take a pregnancy test. (1)
Your doctor will also look for signs of dehydration, including dry skin, cracked lips, dark-colored urine, dizziness, fatigue, and sweating and urinating more than usual, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). (4)
Treatment and Medication Options for Vomiting
Treatment for nausea and vomiting depends on the underlying cause.
Most episodes of vomiting can be treated at home. Self-care measures you can take to treat vomiting include:
- Drink plenty of liquids to avoid dehydration.
- Adhere to a clear liquid diet to rest the stomach.
- Avoid strong odors, including food and cooking smells, perfume, and smoke, that could possibly trigger vomiting.
- When you begin eating solid food again, stick to bland foods that are easily digestible, like cereal, rice, and crackers.
- Avoid spicy and fatty foods.
If you are planning a trip and have a history of motion sickness, try over-the-counter medications to treat the condition, like dimenhydrinate and meclizine. For longer journeys like cruises, your doctor may prescribe an adhesive patch to treat motion sickness.
Vomiting associated with cancer treatments can often be treated with another type of drug therapy.
There are also prescription and nonprescription drugs that can be used to control vomiting associated with pregnancy. These include vitamin B6 supplements, doxylamine, and a combination drug of doxylamine and pyridoxine.
Consult with a doctor before using any of these treatments.
Severe dehydration caused by vomiting may require treatment with intravenous fluids. (6)
Prevention of Vomiting
A person with nausea has the sensation that vomiting may occur. Other signs that you are about to vomit include gagging, retching, choking, involuntary stomach reflexes, the mouth filling with saliva (to protect the teeth from stomach acid), and the need to move or bend over.
If you feel nauseous, resting either in a sitting position or in a propped lying position can help; activity may worsen nausea and may lead to vomiting.
Pregnant women experiencing morning sickness can eat some crackers before getting out of bed or eat a high protein snack before going to bed (like lean meat or cheese). (6)
Research and Statistics: How Many People Suffer from Vomiting?
Nearly everyone is affected by nausea and vomiting at some point in their lives.
Cancer patients and pregnant women are at a higher risk of experiencing nausea than others. According to The March of Dimes, a leading advocacy organization for mothers and babies, at least 7 in 10 pregnant women have morning sickness during the first trimester of pregnancy. (7) While most women feel better during their second trimester, some women have morning sickness throughout their pregnancy.
Resources We Love
Favorite Organizations for Information on Vomiting
American Cancer Society (ACS)
ACS is a nationwide organization dedicated to advocating for cancer patients and eliminating cancer as a major health problem. People living with cancer can get information about why their condition and medications may lead to nausea and vomiting, as well as tips on how to cope. ACS also offers patients advice on how to talk to their healthcare team and loved ones about their symptoms.
March of Dimes
For 80 years, March of Dimes has been a leading advocacy organization for the health of all mothers and babies. Their website offers pregnant women an outlet to learn all about morning sickness, including what is normal and when vomiting may affect their health and the health of their baby.
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
NEDA is the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting those affected by eating disorders and their families. Get the facts about bulimia, an eating disorder characterized by episodes of binging and self-induced purging, including diagnostic criteria, warning signs and symptoms, and health effects of the condition.
National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD)
NORD is a patient advocacy organization dedicated to individuals with rare disorders and conditions. Read all the essential facts on cyclic vomiting syndrome, including symptoms, causes, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment.
Additional reporting by Brian Joseph Miller.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Nausea and Vomiting. National Institutes of Health. June 9, 2020.
- Vomiting Blood. Mayo Clinic. February 22, 2020.
- Nausea and Vomiting Causes. Mayo Clinic. June 16, 2020.
- Dehydration. National Institutes of Health. October, 1, 2020.
- Nausea and Vomiting: When to Call the Doctor. Cleveland Clinic. July 23, 2019.
- Nausea and Vomiting Care and Treatment. Cleveland Clinic. July, 23, 2019.
- Morning Sickness. March of Dimes. September 2017.
- Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome. National Organization for Rare Disorders. 2017.