Acute and Chronic Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea is an uneasy or unsettled feeling in the stomach together with an urge to vomit, or throw up. Nausea and vomiting are common, and they can be symptoms of many different conditions. Common conditions that can cause acute nausea and vomiting include:

  • Food allergies
  • Infections of the stomach or bowels, such as the "stomach flu" or food poisoning
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Migraine headaches
  • Medicines or medical treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer
  • Morning sickness during pregnancy
  • Seasickness or motion sickness
  • Severe pain
  • Problems with the eyes, inner ear, or brain

Nausea and vomiting may also be early warning signs of more serious medical problems, such as:

  • Appendicitis
  • Obstruction or blockage in the intestines
  • Cancer or a tumor
  • Ingesting a drug or poison
  • Peptic ulcers

When nausea and vomiting are chronic, it may be a sign of cyclic vomiting syndrome. With this condition, a person has sudden, repeated attacks or episodes of severe nausea, vomiting, and physical exhaustion that occur with no apparent cause. The episodes can last from a few hours to several days. After an episode, a person can be free of symptoms for a few weeks up to several months. Each episode tends to start at the same time of day, last the same length of time, and occur with the same symptoms and level of intensity.

While the cause of cyclic vomiting syndrome is unknown, there are specific conditions or events that often trigger an episode, including:

  • Emotional stress, anxiety, or panic attacks
  • Infections, such as a sinus infection, respiratory infection, or influenza
  • Eating certain foods, such as chocolate or cheese, or additives, such as caffeine, nitrites, and monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Hot weather
  • Menstrual periods
  • Motion sickness
  • Overeating, fasting, or eating right before bedtime
  • Physical exhaustion or too much exercise

In addition to severe nausea and sudden vomiting, common symptoms of cyclic vomiting syndrome include:

  • Retching, or making an attempt to vomit
  • Heaving or gagging
  • Lack of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Sensitivity to light

Cyclic vomiting can increase the risk for developing several complications, including:

  • Dehydration
  • Esophagitis, or inflammation of the esophagus
  • A Mallory-Weiss tear, which is a tear in the lower end of the esophagus
  • Tooth decay or corroding tooth enamel

Treating nausea and vomiting often depends on the cause. For example, if nausea and vomiting are associated with a migraine headache, treatment will include taking an over-the-counter or prescribed medication for migraines. There are also over-the-counter and prescription medications that specifically target nausea and vomiting.

If you feel nauseated, there are simple things you can do that may help reduce nausea, limit vomiting, and restore fluids, minerals, and other nutrients lost from throwing up. Those things include:

  • Sit quietly. Sometimes moving around can make nausea worse.
  • Make sure your body has enough fluids. Try sipping fruit juices, flat soda, or sports drinks.
  • Eat bland foods, such as crackers, English muffins, toast, baked chicken, potatoes, noodles, and rice.
  • Eat foods with high water content, such as clear soups and popsicles.
  • If you have a bad taste in your mouth, try rinsing with a solution of baking soda, salt, and warm water before you eat.
  • Sit up after you eat. DO NOT lie down.
  • Find a quiet, pleasant place to eat, free of odors and distractions.
  • Try to get outside for some fresh air.
  • Watch a movie or TV to take your mind away from your nausea.

There are also things you should avoid when you have nausea and vomiting, such as greasy and processed foods, foods with high salt content, foods with strong smells, caffeine, alcohol, carbonated drinks, and very spicy foods.