Vomiting – or throwing up - is the sudden emptying of your stomach’s contents. Vomiting is rarely serious, although it can have an adverse effect on the very young and the very old.

Summary

Vomiting has many possible causes but it’s often a symptom of a stomach bug (gastroenteritis).

Vomiting tends to only last for 48 hours and is often accompanied by feeling sick (nausea). It can usually be treated at home simply by drinking lots of fluids and other simple remedies. If you’re vomiting for several days, see your GP, as vomiting can be a symptom of an underlying condition.

Causes of vomiting

Vomiting is your stomach’s way of responding to or getting rid of harmful substances, including bacteria, viruses, poison, excess alcohol and contaminated food. If you are vomiting and have diarrhoea, you may have gastroenteritis, food poisoning or norovirus, which can also trigger projectile vomiting. By vomiting, your body is trying to eject whatever’s at the root of the problem.

Vomiting can also be triggered by your brain. The splitting pain of a migraine is often accompanied by vomiting. The viral infection labyrinthitis, which affects the inner ear, can cause dizziness, lack of balance and vomiting. And the inner ear is also responsible for motion or travel sickness, which causes nausea and vomiting.

Many pregnant women find that they have morning sickness, which involves nausea and/or vomiting. On rare occasions, morning sickness is so severe it causes dehydration and hyperemesis gravidarum, a serious condition requiring hospital treatment.

Other causes of vomiting include:

  • Digestive system conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gallstones, hiatus hernia, stomach ulcers and gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), which is caused by acid reflux
  • Too much alcohol or food
  • Side effects of certain medications, including antibiotics, chemotherapy and general anaesthetics
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs) and kidney infections
  • Uncontrolled diabetes

There are many different reasons for vomiting, which usually require little, if any, medical attention.

However, vomiting can sometimes be a warning of a serious medical emergency. Seek urgent medical attention if you’re vomiting and have:

  • Severe chest pain – this may be a sign of a heart attack
  • Sudden, severe abdominal pain – your appendix may be about to burst or have burst (appendicitis)
  • Blood in your vomit – vomiting blood can be a symptom of a bleeding stomach ulcer or a severely inflamed stomach lining
  • A stiff neck, a rash, a high temperature and an aversion to bright light – these are possible symptoms of meningitis
  • A sudden and intense headache – this may be a warning of a brain tumour or the result of a brain injury

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

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Getting a diagnosis for vomiting

In most cases, you’ll stop vomiting after one or two days of illness. If necessary, you should be able to treat your vomiting with simple remedies or over-the-counter medication.

However, if your child is vomiting, dehydrated and has a high temperature, contact your GP urgently or seek medical attention. In addition, you should visit your GP or seek medical attention if:

  • You’ve been vomiting for over 48 hours
  • You’re unable to keep down fluids
  • You’re bringing up green or yellow vomit – may be a sign of a blockage in your bowel
  • You’re severely dehydrated – look out for confusion, light-headedness, a racing heartbeat and darker than normal urine
  • You’ve unintentionally lost a lot of weight
  • You’re diabetic and you’ve been vomiting a lot – prolonged vomiting can cause problems with your blood sugar levels

Your GP will discuss your vomiting and any other symptoms with you, as well as examining your stomach and perhaps testing your blood and/or urine. You may also be asked to do a pregnancy test.

If required, your GP will refer you to a consultant for further investigations, diagnosis and treatment.

Treatments for vomiting

At home 

The best way to treat vomiting is to stay at home and take it easy. You can also try:

  • Taking frequent sips of water
  • Avoiding solid food until you’ve stopped vomiting
  • Using oral rehydration sachets to prevent dehydration
  • Replacing lost sugars and salts with fruit juices and salty snacks
  • Drinking ginger tea, ginger ale and ginger beer – and, if you can face food, ginger biscuits

If you have morning sickness, you might also find it helps to nibble on crackers before getting out of bed. Some pregnant women find that a high protein snack before bed also helps reduce nausea and vomiting. Your GP or midwife will be able to advise you about other ways to relieve morning sickness.

Medication

For motion sickness, your GP or pharmacist should be able to recommend an over-the-counter medication you can take before travelling.

In some cases, your GP may suggest anti-sickness medication. If required, your GP will prescribe medication for any underlying conditions linked to your nausea or refer you for treatment. If you're pregnant, always check with your doctor or midwife before you take any medications.

If your vomiting is a side effect of medication, your GP or consultant may prescribe a different medication or change the dosage.

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