Vomiting: Causes, Treatments & Prevention

Mary Lucas, RN

Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 12/03/2020

Vomiting, or throwing up, is a common symptom of many health conditions, including bacterial and viral infections, motion sickness, migraines and numerous others. 

Most of the time, vomiting occurs after nausea — a feeling of sickness in your stomach and an urge to vomit. Vomiting can affect anyone of any age and background and range from mild to severe and persistent.

While vomiting is unpleasant, it sometimes serves an important purpose by helping your body to get rid of poisons and toxins.

Occasional episodes of vomiting usually aren’t cause for concern. However, severe, persistent vomiting, or vomiting that’s accompanied by other symptoms, may signal a serious illness and require medical attention. 

Below, we’ve explained why vomiting happens, as well as when you should seek professional medical help if you’re feeling nauseous and vomiting often. We’ve also covered the treatments that are available for nausea and vomiting, from self-care techniques to medications. 

What Causes Vomiting? 

Nausea and vomiting generally occur as the result of a medical condition. A variety of different conditions may cause you to feel nauseous and vomit, including the following:

  • Food poisoning

  • Gastroenteritis, or “stomach flu”

  • Migraines and other headaches

  • Other bacterial or viral infections

  • Motion sickness (airsickness, carsickness or seasickness)

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or peptic ulcers

  • Intestinal obstruction

  • Certain types of medication, such as chemotherapy medications or anesthesia used during surgery

In women, nausea and vomiting often occur during pregnancy — a symptom that’s often referred to as morning sickness.

In some cases, vomiting may be a signal of a more serious illness. For example, diseases such as cancer, heart disease and kidney or liver disorders may cause vomiting, either on its own or alongside other symptoms.

Sometimes, vomiting is caused by an environmental factor. For example, unpleasant odors can cause nausea and vomiting in some people. 

Vomiting can also occur as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol can irritate the stomach lining and increase your body’s production of gastric acid, causing you to vomit while you drink alcohol or in the next morning as part of a hangover.

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When Should You Seek Help?

Most of the time, vomiting isn’t something that requires urgent medical attention. Nausea and vomiting often develop because of food poisoning or an infection such as gastroenteritis, or as the result of a disturbance like motion sickness.

However, when vomiting is severe or persistent, you should seek medical assistance. Call your healthcare provider if you:

  • Vomit three times or more in a single day

  • Feel nauseous for 48 hours or longer

  • Can’t keep food or liquid down

  • Haven’t urinated in eight hours or longer

  • Feel physically weak

  • Have a fever or stomach pain

You should contact your healthcare provider immediately if you think your vomiting is caused by a poison, or if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Blood in your vomit

  • Severe abdominal pain

  • Persistent vomiting over 24 hours or longer

  • Severe dehydration and neck stiffness or neck pain

  • Other signs of dehydration, such as dark urine, infrequent urination or a dry mouth

Treatments for Vomiting

Treatment for vomiting usually involves treating the underlying cause, whether it’s an illness such as food poisoning, a health condition such as motion sickness or a specific bacterial or viral infection. 

When vomiting is caused by an underlying condition such as pregnancy, a brain injury, or chemotherapy, treatment simply involves managing the symptoms for the duration.

Your healthcare provider may prescribe a medication to treat the cause of your nausea and vomiting. Make sure to follow their instructions, as treating the underlying cause will help to bring vomiting and other symptoms to an end.

Self-Care and Lifestyle Changes

Treating and recovering from vomiting usually involves lots of self-care. Taking good care of yourself will make recovering easier. Try to implement the following techniques while you’re recovering from nausea and vomiting:

  • After you stop vomiting, make sure to drink plenty of fluids. Focus on clear fluids, such as water or diluted juice. It’s important to make sure you’re hydrated, as vomiting can cause you to lose significant amounts of fluid.

  • When you feel like eating, stick to bland, simple foods. Start by eating simple foods like plain bread, oatmeal and yoghurt. Avoid foods with a large fat content, as these are slow to digest and more likely to make you feel nauseous.

  • Eat small meals instead of large ones. Try to eat smaller meals frequently instead of large meals less often. Eating six to eight small meals per day may help you to avoid feelings of nausea and vomiting.

  • Eat foods that contain lots of water. Soft, watery foods like Jell-O, popsicles and clear soups are easy to digest and very effective for rehydrating after illnesses that cause you to vomit.

  • Take a break from exercise or any strenuous physical activity. This may make your nausea worse and cause you to vomit. Try to take it slow and either sit or lie down in a reclined position.

  • Avoid strong smells. Many smells, such as chemicals, perfumes or unpleasant odors, can trigger nausea and vomiting. Try to spend your time in an environment that doesn’t have any strong odors.

Medications for Nausea and Vomiting

Medications used to treat nausea and vomiting are called antiemetics. Some antiemetics can be purchased over the counter from your local drug store or supermarket, while others may require a prescription. 

If you feel nauseous, an over-the-counter treatment like Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol®) may help to reduce inflammation in your digestive system (such as that caused by the stomach flu) and relieve your symptoms.

If you experience nausea and vomiting due to motion sickness, using an antihistamine before you fly, sail or travel in a vehicle may help you to control your symptoms and avoid vomiting. 

Over-the-counter antihistamines for motion sickness include dimenhydrinate (Dramamine®), diphenhydramine (Benadryl®) and scopolamine. 

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), transdermal scopolamine (available as a skin patch) is an effective first-line treatment for motion sickness that causes fewer side effects than other antihistamines.

For severe vomiting, your healthcare provider may recommend that you take in fluids through an IV (intravenous) drip.

How to Prevent Vomiting

Preventing nausea and vomiting isn’t always possible, especially when you have an illness that causes these symptoms. However, taking certain steps may reduce your risk of getting sick with an illness that causes vomiting. Try to:

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. This can reduce your risk of coming into contact with bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. Make sure to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, as recommended in this CDC hand washing guide.

  • Pay attention to expiration dates. Expired food is often a hotbed of bacteria, including harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Pay close attention to expiration dates and throw away food that’s old or hasn’t been stored correctly.

  • If you feel nauseous, try drinking a sweet, clear beverage. Drinks that contain sugar may help to calm your stomach, reducing your risk of vomiting if you feel nauseous and unwell.

    If you feel nauseous, try drinking a sweet soda, sugary sports drink or fruit juice to calm your stomach. It’s best to avoid orange or grapefruit juice, as these are quite acidic and may irritate your digestive system.

  • If you’re prone to motion sickness, use medication to treat it. Medications such as scopolamine skin patches may help to control motion sickness symptoms and stop you from vomiting while traveling.

In Conclusion

Nausea and vomiting can occur for a variety of reasons, from motion sickness to illnesses such as food poisoning. While most vomiting doesn’t require medical attention, you should seek help if you have persistent or severe vomiting that doesn’t seem to improve over time.

If you feel nauseous or have been vomiting, you can talk to a licensed healthcare professional online to learn more about your treatment options and, if appropriate, receive a prescription for medication that you can pick up from your local pharmacy.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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