What Causes Vomiting? 8 Reasons Why and How To Treat 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, your own vomiting cause can be difficult to diagnose.

Vomiting is a symptom that indicates a whole host of possible diseases, disorders, and illnesses. Online, you will find dozens and dozens of hypothetical vomiting causes and reasons this bodily mechanism was triggered.

In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at some of the most common causes of vomiting, and offer some ideas on how to stop vomiting. 

8 Causes of Vomiting

Vomiting signals that something abnormal is happening in the body. It’s a natural way for the body to try to correct the imbalance by ridding itself of the problem. 

There are many vomiting causes, but some are more common than others. Here are a few that you may have experienced. 

1. Nausea

Nausea is an uncomfortable gastrointestinal sensation that makes a person feel as if they will vomit. Scientists have not agreed upon the exact way the sensation is processed by the brain, but almost all people have experienced nausea for one reason or another. 

Fortunately, nausea does not always lead to vomiting. It’s another symptom of an underlying condition that may stimulate vomiting, depending on the severity of nausea. 

2. Retching

Retching is when the stomach contracts repeatedly in what many people describe as “dry heaving,” or the feeling of vomiting without actually losing stomach contents. Physiologically, it’s spasmodic respiratory movements with a closed glottis, which is the space between vocal cords located in the larynx.

While retching itself is not a vomiting cause, the spasms are often a sign of what’s to come and can eventually lead to productive vomiting. 

4. Gastroenteritis

When people talk about the stomach flu or a stomach bug, they are actually talking about any number of bacteria or viruses that sometimes attack the gastrointestinal (GI) system. These infections lead to gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the GI system, which may cause vomiting.

The norovirus is the most common cause of gastroenteritis. With over 19 million cases a year, norovirus is very contagious, and oftentimes causes nausea and vomiting.

The virus is 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, norovirus causes 1-3 days of discomfort until the body rids itself of the infection. It’s a common cause of vomiting, but there isn’t anything you can do aside from taking care of yourself as the virus runs its course. It’s important 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.

4. Food Poisoning

It’s a common but potentially serious mistake. Whether you ate some food left out overnight, or you fearlessly downed questionable sushi, food poisoning is another cause of vomiting. Over 48 million Americans get sick every year from eating contaminated food. 

Food poisoning is a general term for one of many non-specific bacteria or viruses transmitted through food. Typically, when talking about food poisoning, we’re talking about food contaminated with 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.

At home, food poisoning can typically be avoided. Follow food safety guidelines, including proper hand washing, cooking foods to recommended temperatures, and throwing away potentially unsafe food.

5. Motion Sickness

Motion sickness is 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. Actions like reading in the car or being on a boat in choppy water can lead to motion sickness. 

This discrepancy between how your sensory system perceives the world around can lead to nausea, which can then trigger vomiting. Fresh air and deep breathing sometimes ease these symptoms, but avoiding situations that cause motion sickness may be necessary. 

6. Pregnancy

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

Many call it “morning sickness,” but the truth is, that nausea can strike at any time of day during pregnancy. Nausea may begin as early as the 4th week of pregnancy. Approximately half of women who experience nausea during pregnancy feel relief around 14 weeks.

Nausea and vomiting are considered normal parts of pregnancy, but severe cases can be unsafe for you and the baby. Talk to your healthcare provider if you’re concerned about dehydration or lack of nutrition. 

7. Acid Reflux

Acid reflux is a malfunction of the body’s digestive system, in which the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) leaks and allows stomach acid and undigested food to travel back up your esophagus. The sour taste from stomach acid can sometimes be a cause of vomiting.

Acid reflux symptoms can sometimes be relieved with lifestyle changes. Those with symptoms should avoid fried foods, citrus, spicy foods, caffeine, sodas, and alcohol which may weaken the LES. Experts also recommend quitting smoking, elevating your upper body when sleeping, and not lying down within two hours after eating. 

Talk to your provider about using medications like antacids to relieve acid reflux.

8. Stress

Have you ever felt queasy just before making a speech? Maybe you’ve had butterflies in your stomach right before confessing your feelings to a crush? Real-world events can cause stress, and that may trigger a physical reaction like nausea or even vomiting.

These symptoms are part of your autonomic nervous system, which moderates heart rate, blood pressure and digestion. Anxiety, fear or excitement can cause your body to go into “fight or flight” mode, which leads to vomiting in some people. 

When faced with stressful situations, breathing techniques are often helpful. Try taking deep breaths through the nose, exhaling slowly through the mouth. 

What Causes Bile Vomiting?

Some people have experienced vomiting a greenish, acidic fluid called bile. Bile is a  liquid your liver normally makes for digestion. If you vomit while your stomach is empty of food, bile may be what comes up. 

Other serious problems like alcoholism, food poisoning, intestinal blockage, hernias and bile reflux can cause people to vomit bile. These conditions need a medical professional's evaluation to provide the proper treatment.

While you can’t always prevent bile vomiting, there are some lifestyle choices you can make to reduce the chances of causing the problem. Healthcare professionals recommend avoiding binge drinking, eating a diet high in fiber and following food safety recommendations. 

What Does Blood in Vomit Mean? 

If you have blood in your vomit, it may be a sign of a serious problem, and you should seek medical help right away. This condition is called hematemesis and means that you are bleeding somewhere in your upper gastrointestinal tract. The blood could be from your esophagus, stomach or small intestine. 

Keep in mind that the blood may not be bright red, especially if the problem is happening in your stomach or intestine. Instead, it may look darker and brownish, like coffee grounds. 

Causes of the bleeding may be related to gastric ulcers, an injury, pancreatitis, a blood vessel that ruptured, a tumor or a tear in your esophagus. It’s critical to get help immediately to ensure a medical team can find the source of the problem and stop the bleeding. 

How to Stop Vomiting or Prevent It

While it’s never pleasant, sometimes vomiting is a necessary function that ultimately protects your body. For example, consuming enough alcohol to achieve a toxic level in your bloodstream often results in vomiting. In this circumstance, throwing up is your body’s attempt to return to a non-toxic level that might otherwise damage your brain and other organs. 

Another example is when the body vomits to rid itself of a viral or bacterial infection like E. coli. This is another vomiting cause that may need to run its course. 

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

Try some of these handy tips:

  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and acidic drinks like orange juice
  • Avoid oily and spicy foods
  • Avoid physical activity
  • Get some fresh air by opening a window or stepping outside
  • Remove outer layers of clothing if you’re feeling warm
  • Sit down or lie propped up
  • Sip something carbonated like cold ginger ale 
  • Suck ice chips or have a cold drink
  • Practice deep breathing 

When to Visit GoHealth Urgent Care for Vomiting

People vomit for many 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 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
  • Loss of vision
  • Stroke
  • Severe bleeding
  • Vomiting blood

Although vomiting and nausea are never comfortable, there’s a sizable 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.

If you need help assessing and treating asthma, come see the experts at GoHealth Urgent Care. You can walk in without an appointment, or you can check in online. We’ll have you back to feeling better in no time.

GoHealth Urgent Care partners with these regional healthcare providers:

References:

“Vomiting Blood.” 2022. Mayo Clinic. March 18, 2022. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/vomiting-blood/basics/definition/sym-20050732.

“Vomiting Blood.” n.d. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed August 16, 2022. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/17708-vomiting-blood.

“Bile Reflux.” 2022. Mayo Clinic. January 6, 2022. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bile-reflux/symptoms-causes/syc-20370115.

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant