Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at November 22, 2015

When vomiting occurs, it generally considered a sign that something is wrong in the body. However, it is one of the human species most important methods of physical protection. Vomiting can be physically distressing and can cause dehydration of body fluids that are necessary for health.


Definition & Facts

Vomiting is the forceful voluntary or involuntary ejection of the contents of the stomach through the mouth. It is a complex nervous system response that sends messages between the brain, the gastrointestinal system and the abdominal muscles.

Vomiting is a highly evolved reflex that helps to protect human beings and alert them to a serious problem. Vomiting developed to protect humans who have consumed tainted food items. The vomiting reflex also serves other purposes in illness that help indicate that medical intervention may be necessary. Vomiting is usually preceded by nausea, a feeling of gastronomical unease that warns that vomiting may occur. Sweating, pallor and elevated heart rate may also precede a vomiting event.


The vomiting reflex can be triggered by a variety of causes. Some people are more prone to vomiting than other people, which suggest that their nervous system reflex for vomiting is more sensitive. A few of the common causes of vomiting include:

  • Migraine headache – Severe headaches, such as migraine, can cause disturbances in the reflex centers of the brain, causing nausea and vomiting that are unrelated to substances that are eaten.
  • Stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis) – This illness can pass quickly from person to person, causing repeated bouts of vomiting as the virus passes through the gastrointestinal system.
  • Motion sickness – Being in certain positions while in motion in a car, airplane or other method of transportation can cause disturbances in the brain that cause vomiting.
  • High fevers – Children often experienced vomiting from high fevers.
  • Ear infection – Infection within the ear canal can initiate the vomiting reflex.
  • Chemotherapy – The powerful chemicals given during chemotherapy for cancer can cause vomiting.
  • Radiation therapy – Radiation that is administered during treatment for cancer can also cause vomiting as a side effect.

When to see a doctor

Most cases of vomiting from minor conditions are self-limiting and need no treatment beyond replacing fluids. Water, ginger ale, clear broths, popsicles or jello can replace fluids without causing additional stomach upset. However, when vomiting continues for more than a few hours, you should seek medical attention to determine the cause.

If vomiting continues for more than a few hours, the risk of dehydration increases. Dehydration can occur rapidly in infants and small children, and you should see a doctor immediately whenever a child vomits more than two or three times in a 24-hour period. When vomiting is associated with fever, pain, vomiting of blood or with black, tarry stools, you should seek medical attention immediately.

The physician will do a complete physical examination and order tests, such as urinalysis, blood chemical screens and X-rays to determine the cause of the problem. For vomiting due to chemotherapy, radiotherapy or medications you may be taking, consult with your doctor for advice and medications to prevent dehydration.

Treatment & Therapy

Treatments for vomiting include prescription medications to calm the vomiting reflex and alternative remedies that are known to be helpful. Common medications for vomiting include:

These medications can be a significant help in stopping repeated vomiting. Alternative remedies can also be helpful, such as:

  • Small amounts of fluids, such as water, sports drinks or clear soups, gradually increasing the amount as the stomach is able to handle it
  • Avoiding milk and other dairy products, which can be harder to digest when the stomach is sensitive
  • Avoid all heavy foods, sweet foods, fried foods and excessively spicy foods.
  • After the individual can tolerate fluids for 24 hours, you can begin to add soft foods, such as yogurt, gelatin, oatmeal or rice.
  • Ginger in capsule, tea or crystallized form can help to soothe nausea and vomiting.
  • Peppermint tea can also be used to settle the stomach.
  • Children are particularly vulnerable to dehydration and can benefit from drinking Pedialyte® or other electrolyte product.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Preventing vomiting entirely can be difficult, because the reflex is so strong. However, if you are in a situation where vomiting is a possibility, you can apply a few strategies to resist the urge to vomit:

  • Sit down or lie with the upper part of the body propped up on pillows. Physical activity can increase the urge to vomit, and lying flat on your back can also increase the risk.
  • Sip a small amount of a sweet liquid, such as soda or a sports drink. A bit of sugar can help to calm the stomach. An acidic drink such as orange juice or grapefruit can make the urge to vomit worse.
  • Have a popsicle or drink some sweet tea. These items will soothe the stomach and provide fluids, without irritating an already tender stomach lining.
  • Get some fresh air. Opening a window or sitting outside can help to make the urge to vomit pass.
  • Avoid areas with strong odors. If you work around chemicals, leave the area for a while. Kitchen smells can also increase the urge to vomit.
  • Suck on a hard peppermint candy. Peppermint can have a calming effect on the stomach.
  • Avoid heavy meals. Allow your stomach to rest for a period.
  • Make sure the foods you eat are fresh and well-cooked. Bacteria can lurk in refrigerator items that are kept too long. Always check expiration dates and be particularly careful with thawed poultry products and dairy products. Thorough cooking will help to kill bacteria in food.
  • Wash raw fruits and vegetables carefully before eating. These foods can become contaminated in the field or while being transported. Washing will help to remove bacteria that can lead to gastrointestinal problems.
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