What Causes Vomiting? 7 Reasons Why and How to Ease It

Whether you call it vomit, throw up, barf, yak, puke, hurl, or heave, one thing’s for sure: there’s nothing fun about vomiting. And as if the sensation of vomiting isn’t bad enough, it can be difficult to figure out why your body is reacting this way.

Vomiting is a symptom that’s related to a whole host of different diseases, disorders, and illnesses. Online, you will find dozens and dozens of hypothetical explanations for why this bodily mechanism was triggered.

In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at some of the most common causes of vomiting.

Name or Reason Description Treatment
Gastroenteritis Also known as “stomach flu” although it’s not actually a flu virus. Technically caused by noroviruses which are spread by eating undercooked/raw fruits, vegetables and shellfish, or contact with an infected person. Typically clears on its own after 3-5 days. Drink plenty of water to fight dehydration.
Food Poisoning A bacterial infection transmitted through spoiled or rotten food. Common types of bacteria include E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella. Typically resolves between 1-3 days. Get plenty of rest and stay hydrated.
Motion Sickness A conflict within the balance-system senses. A common occurrence is when out to sea, your inner ear detects movement but your eyes don’t see the waves. There are many over-the-counter medications available to reduce symptoms. Carbonated beverages and fresh air might also provide relief.
Ear Infection A bacterial infection that causes swollen Eustachian tubes in your ear. This can lead to an imbalance of your system-senses causing nausea and vomiting. Prescribed antibiotics.
Pregnancy Nausea and vomiting are common symptom of pregnancy, likely because of the changes the body undergoes to support a child. Staying hydrated helps reduce nausea while pregnant.
Acid Reflux Improper functioning of the lower esophageal sphincter, allowing stomach acid travels to travel upwards to the esophagus. Over-the-counter medication like antacids, undergoing surgeries, and making lifestyle changes.
Stress Intense emotions can sometimes cause nausea and vomiting. Social anxiety, performance anxiety, stressors, fear, over-excitement may trigger nausea. Not a serious problem, but practicing deep breathing exercises and calming techniques may help.

When to Seek Medical Help for Nausea and Vomiting

People vomit for all sorts of reasons, but it’s the severity of the situation that should determine whether or not to seek medical help. Something like food poison is typically not anything to worry about – just let it run its course. This goes the same for bouts of motion sickness and stress vomiting.

However, there are several instances in which attending an urgent care or emergency room is undeniably necessary. So, if you’re experiencing nausea and vomiting, why would you choose an urgent care center over an emergency room visit or vice versa?

Typically, if you’re experiencing any symptoms that may be considered “life-threatening,” you should immediately proceed to the ER. Anything short of life-threatening can generally be handled at an urgent care. Examples of symptoms that indicate an emergency situation are:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Head trauma
  • Stroke
  • Severe bleeding
  • Loss of vision
  • Vomiting blood

Although vomiting and nausea is never comfortable, there’s a sizeable difference between a life-threatening symptom and the overall discomfort of retching. Unless your vomit shows traces of blood, you can likely seek medical care at your local urgent care rather than the ER.

What Happens When We Vomit?

Humans are actually one of the few mammals that vomit in nature. Depending on the condition or cause, the brain sends a signal to the diaphragm and the stomach which propels the food up the esophagus and out the mouth.

As defined by VIVO Pathophysiology, vomiting is:

“the forceful expulsion of contents of the stomach and, often, the proximal small intestine.”

Most researchers agree that vomiting is experienced in a sequence of three events:


The uncomfortable sensation that makes a person feel as if they will vomit. Scientists are not agreed upon the exact way the sensation is processed by the brain, but almost all people have experience nausea for one reason or another. Note: nausea does not always lead to vomiting.


When the stomach contracts repeatedly in what many people describe as “dry heaving.” Physiologically, it’s spasmodic respiratory movements with a closed glottis. Unfamiliar with the glottis? It’s the space between vocal cords located in the larynx.


First, a deep breath is taken, the glottis closes, and the larynx opens the upper esophageal sphincter. Second, the diaphragm contracts to create negative pressure, opening the esophagus. Then, abdominal muscles are contracted and pressure within the gastric system becomes intensified. This clears the passage for the stomach’s contents to be launched up through the opened esophagus and out the mouth.

Can You Stop Yourself from Vomiting?

It really depends on the situation. Sometimes, vomiting is a necessary bodily function that ultimately protects you in the long run. For example, consuming enough alcohol to achieve a toxic level in your bloodstream will result in vomiting. In this circumstance, throwing up is your body’s attempt to return to a non-toxic level.

Another example is when the body vomits to rid itself of a bacterial infection like E. coli.

That said, if you’re experiencing nausea due to something like motion sickness or stress, it is possible to prevent the vomiting stage.

Try some of these handy tips:

  • Sit down or lie propped up
  • Avoid physical activity
  • Drink something sugary like ginger ale or Gatorade
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and acidic drinks like orange juice
  • Suck ice chips or have a cold drink
  • Avoid oily and spicy foods
  • Practice deep breathing exercises


Fun fact: the stomach flu doesn’t actually exist. When people talk about the stomach flu or a stomach bug, they are actually talking about a virus like the norovirus. With over 19M cases a year, the norovirus is incredibly common and very uncomfortable. Oftentimes, a stomach bug leads to nausea and vomiting.

It’s a virus transmitted by touching your nose, mouth, or eyes after coming into contact with someone who carries the infection. It can also be caused by eating food contaminated with the virus.

Typically, the norovirus causes 1-3 days of discomfort until the body destroys it. It’s a common cause of vomiting, but there isn’t anything you can do other than letting the virus run its course. Make sure to stay hydrated, follow the B.R.A.T. diet, and avoid caffeine and alcohol.

If life-threatening symptoms are experienced, make sure to visit the ER as soon as possible.

Food Poisoning

Everyone has been there before. Maybe you ate some food left out overnight, or you fearlessly downed questionable sushi. Either way, food poisoning is another common cause of vomiting.

Food poisoning is a general term for one of many non-specific illnesses transmitted through food. Typically, when talking about food poisoning, we’re talking about a bacterium like E. coli, listeria, or salmonella.

The body can usually clear itself of the bacteria within 48 hours. Vomiting is usually the path to ridding itself of the bacteria, and oftentimes throwing up is paired with nausea. In some cases, you may need antibiotics which can be acquired after a visit to urgent care.

Motion Sickness

For some, reading in the car or being in choppy water can trigger motion sickness. It’s a sensation that’s triggered when there’s a difference between motion sensed by your inner ear and the motion you see with your eyes.

This discrepancy between how your sensory system perceives the world around can lead to nausea, which can then trigger vomiting.


Although we all know morning sickness and nausea during pregnancy is common, researchers are not entirely sure what causes it. The most common theory is the number of physical changes happening in the body. Between hormonal changes to stress, there are any number of causes.

Many call it “morning sickness,” but the truth is, nausea can strike at any time during pregnancy. For some, the nausea begins as early as 4 weeks of pregnancy. It’s been stated that approximately half of women who experience nausea during pregnancy feel relief around 14 weeks.

Unfortunately, nausea and vomiting are considered normal parts of pregnancy. Other than lying down and staying hydrated, you just need to let the process run its course.

Acid Reflux

Acid reflux is a condition where the body’s digestive system functions improperly. The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) allows stomach acid and undigested food to travel up your esophagus instead of closing shut. The sour taste from stomach acid can trigger nausea and even vomiting.

Oftentimes, correcting acid reflux requires lifestyle changes. Fried foods, citrus, spicy foods, caffeine, sodas, and alcohol can sometimes weaken the LES. Other lifestyle changes that can decrease acid reflux episodes include quitting smoking, elevating your head when sleeping, and not lying down after eating. Antacids can also provide immediate acid reflux relief.


Have you ever been next in line at some sort of public speaking engagement and felt queasy? Or maybe had butterflies in your stomach right before confessing your feelings to a crush? Real-world events can cause major anxiety, and that may trigger a physical reaction.

Besides social or performance anxiety, fear can cause the same reaction. And on the other end of the spectrum, extreme cases of excitement! Sometimes intense emotions can cause instant nausea and possibly vomiting. All you can do to remedy stress nausea is practice deep breathing exercises and drink something cold and bubbly.

Unfortunately, stress is just a part of life everyone must deal with!

Wrapping Up: Reasons to Vomit

There are so many different reasons people vomit. Typically, some sort of bodily issue leads to nausea, and nausea can lead to vomit. Sometimes vomiting is the body fighting infection, and sometimes vomiting is the result of psychological stress.

Throwing up feels terrible, and it can make you think a situation is worse that it actually is. Even the sensation of nausea before vomiting feels awful, but nausea does not always mean you will, in fact, vomit.

When in doubt, if you’re feeling nauseous or have recently vomited, try following the BRAT diet:

  • B – Bananas
  • R – Rice
  • A – Apples
  • T – Toast

And more than anything else, stay hydrated and get plenty of rest! If your vomiting and nausea last more than 24-hours, be sure to check-in at your nearest GoHealth Urgent Care center using the widget below!

See our prices on co-pays and same-day visits, with and without insurance.

GoHealth Urgent Care partners with these regional healthcare providers:

View all articles
Culture Of Care

Highly skilled, caring providers go out of their way to make you their #1 priority.

Trusted Partnerships

We partner with leading health systems that have the finest networks of physicians and clinicians.

Effortless Experience

Enjoy effortless access with online check-ins, walk in appointments and integrated electronic medical records.

Innovative Facilities

State of the art urgent care centers welcome you with a clean, contemporary design engineered for your comfort and privacy.

Health News and Tips for the Whole Family

By providing your email address you agree that GoHealth Urgent Care and our health system partner may contact you in the future. Your privacy is important to us; view our Privacy Policy.